Archive for the ‘Authors’ Category

The Back Door is Locked

Friday, June 12th, 2015

Cessna 210In my AOPA Opinion Leaders Blog post of September 2014 (“Backdoor Rulemaking?”), I discussed the unprecedented action taken by the Cessna Aircraft Company intended to compel the owners of cantilever-wing Cessna 210s to perform repetitive eddy-current inspections of their wing spars. Finally, I can fill you in on the punch line.

By way of background: Normally, if an aircraft manufacturer believes that an unsafe condition exists that justifies imposing special inspections, component life limits, replacement or overhaul times, or similar burdens on aircraft owners, they go to the FAA and ask for an Airworthiness Directive (AD) to be issued. If the FAA is persuaded that the alleged unsafe condition actually constitutes a significant safety concern and that the burden on owners is reasonable given the safety risk, then the FAA issues a Notice of Proposed Rulemkaing (NPRM) announcing its intention to issue an AD and soliciting comments on the proposal from the affected public. The FAA is then required to consider and respond to all public comments submitted during the comment period before issuing its final rule that makes the AD effective. This same notice-and-comment protocol is required of all executive-branch regulatory agencies of the U.S. federal government by a law called the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

Indeed, that’s precisely what Cessna did in 2013: It asked the FAA’s Wichita Aircraft Certification Office (ACO) to issue an AD mandating repetitive eddy-current inspections on all cantilever-wing Cessna 210s. But to Cessna’s chagrin, the Wichita ACO turned down Cessna’s request and declined to proceed with an AD, presumably because the ACO was not persuaded that such an AD was justified.

That should have been the end of the matter. But it wasn’t.

In February 2014, Cessna very quietly published a revision to the Cessna 210 service manual that added three new pages to the manual. Those three pages constituted a new section 2B to the manual, titled “Airworthiness Limitations,” that called for the repetitive eddy-current spar inspections. Somehow Cessna persuaded the Wichita ACO to approve this amendment—something the ACO really shouldn’t have done, as you shall see.

Cessna then publicly took the position that compliance with the repetitive eddy-current spar inspections was compulsory because those inspections were now part of an FAA-approved Airworthiness Limitations Section (ALS). Indeed, FAR 91.403(c) compels aircraft owners to comply with mandatory replacement times, inspection intervals, and related procedures specified in an ALS. And FAR 43.16 compels maintenance personnel to perform any inspections or maintenance specified in an ALS precisely “by the book.”

David vs. Goliath?

SlingshotI first learned about this at the beginning of September 2014, when my colleague Paul New—owner of Tennessee Aircraft Services, Inc. (a well-known Cessna Piston Aircraft Service Center) and honored by the FAA in 2007 as National Aviation Maintenance Technician of the Year—discovered the new section 2B in the Cessna 210 service manual, and immediately realized its significance. Paul and I discussed the matter at length, and both felt strongly that Cessna’s actions could not be allowed to go unchallenged.

“If Cessna gets away with this,” I told Paul, “then any manufacturer will be able to effectively impose their own ADs whenever they want, bypassing the notice-and-comment protocol and the other safeguards built into the APA to protect the public from unreasonable government regulation.”

I helped Paul draft a letter to the Rulemaking Division (AGC-200) of the FAA’s Office of General Counsel, questioning the retroactive enforceability of Cessna’s newly minted ALS against Cessna 210s that were manufactured prior to the date the ALS was published (i.e., all of them, given that Cessna 210 production ceased in 1986). Our letter questioned whether Cessna could do what it was trying to do (i.e., make the eddy-current inspections compulsory) within the confines of the APA. We asked AGC-200 to issue a formal Letter of Interpretation (LOI) of the thorny regulatory issues that Cessna’s unprecedented actions raised.

And then we waited. And waited.

AGC-200 initially advised us that they had a four-month backlog of prior requests before they would be able to respond to our request. In fact, it took seven months. It turns out that our letter questioning the enforceability of Cessna’s ALS opened a messy can of worms. AGC-200 assigned two attorneys to draft the FAA’s response, and they wound up having to coordinate with AFS-300 (Flight Standards Maintenance Division), AIR-100 (Aircraft Certification Division), ACE-100 (Small Airplane Directorate), and of course ACE-115W (Wichita Aircraft Certification Office) who mistakenly approved Cessna’s ALS in the first place.

FAA Legal Does the Right Thing

FAA Headquarters

FAA Headquarters
800 Independence Ave.
Washington DC

Finally, on May 21, 2015, AGC-200 issued the Letter of Interpretation (LOI) that we requested. It was five pages long, and was everything we hoped it would be and more. It slammed shut the “rulemaking backdoor” that Cessna had been attempting to use to bypass the AD process, locked it once and for all, threw away the key, and squirted epoxy glue in the lock for good measure. You can read the entire LOI in all its lawyerly glory, but here’s the CliffsNotes version of the letter’s key bullet points:

  • Under FAR 21.31(c), an ALS is part of an aircraft’s type design.
  • The only version of an ALS that is mandatory is the version that was included in the particular aircraft’s type design at the time it was manufactured.
  • Absent an AD or other FAA rule that would make the new replacement times and inspection intervals retroactive, Cessna’s “after-added” ALS is not mandatory for persons who operate or maintain the Model 210 aircraft, the design and production of which predate the new ALS addition. The “requirements” set forth in the ALS would only be mandatory for aircraft manufactured after the ALS was issued. And of course, production of the Cessna 210 ceased in 1986.
  • If operational regulations were interpreted as imposing an obligation on operators and maintenance providers to comply with the latest revision of a manufacturer’s document, manufacturers could unilaterally impose regulatory burdens on operators of existing aircraft. This would be legally objectionable in that the FAA does not have legal authority to delegate its rulemaking authority to manufacturers. Furthermore, “substantive rules” can be adopted only in accordance with the rulemaking section of the APA (5 U.S.C. § 553) which does not grant rulemaking authority to manufacturers. To comply with these statutory obligations, the FAA would have to engage in its own rulemaking to mandate the manufacturer’s document, as it does when it issues ADs.

The bottom line is this: Manufacturers of certificated aircraft* are not permitted to impose regulatory burdens on aircraft owners by changing the rules in the middle of the game. Only the FAA may do that, and only through proper rulemaking action that complies with the APA (including its notice-and-comment provisions and other safeguards). If you ever encounter a situation where the manufacturer of your aircraft tries to do this, call their cards—the FAA lawyers will back you up.

*NOTE: The rules are completely different for S-LSAs.  The manufacturers of S-LSAs can do pretty much anything they like, and their word is the law. (A seriously flawed situation IMHO.)

The LOI concluded with the following surprising paragraph:

On February 19, 2015, the FAA’s Small Airplane Directorate sent a letter to Cessna that addressed some of the above issues, and pointed out the non-mandatory nature of the after-added ALS for the Model 210 aircraft. The FAA asked Cessna to republish the replacement times and inspections as recommendations that are encouraged, but optional, for those in-service aircraft, unless later mandated by an AD. To date [three months later –mb] Cessna has not provided a written response outlining its position on this matter.

Are we having fun yet?

Man vs. Machine: The Challenge of Staying Sharp in the 21st Century

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

So there I was, sitting in the cockpit of a 2015 Super Decathlon the other day, twisting my sunburned noggin into a pretzel trying to decide whether the ship was a throwback to the 1940s or a glimpse of general aviation’s high-tech future. You’d think that would be an easy call. The Decathlon is a derivative of the Aeronca Champ, after all.

But tube-and-fabric airframe aside, the Garmin GTN750 touchscreen, Aspen Evolution 1000, ADS-B data link, and other gadgetry made me realize that the greatest advances in avionics and aircraft automation are not found in airliners. They’re found in general aviation aircraft, many of them with the same reciprocating engines (and, on occasion, steel tube fuselages) they had seventy years ago.

We now live in a world where you can ask your iPhone to whip up a flight plan and wirelessly transmit it to the avionics in your airplane so you don’t have to input a thing. For the IFR pilot, did ATC give you a re-route? No problem — and no buttons to press (except perhaps the Staples “easy” button). Just touch the screen of your Garmin navigator and drag the course line to wherever you want it to go. Flying: “so easy a caveman can do it”.

Or is it?

I’m not anti-technology. Far from it. I’m a computer nerd and can’t get enough of the stuff. Nor am I suggesting that a high-tech cockpit even makes life easier. Especially when equipment fails or doesn’t respond as expected, the work load can ratchet up very quickly. But the truth is that once you’ve got the boxes figured out, automation can and does rob us of basic flying skill unless we take a proactive stance to prevent the erosion of those skills.

How could it not? Automated aircraft make us flight managers, not pilots who physically control the aircraft. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s something pilots far and wide need to acknowledge and be aware of.

The insidiously perishable nature of flying skill is ironic, because as most manufacturers will tell you, from a statistical viewpoint aviation is considerably safer due to the march of technology. What remains unsaid, however, is that much like beefing up a weak point on an aerobatic aircraft, we’re just shifting the hazard to another area. The wing might be able to withstand 16 Gs, but that doesn’t mean the engine mount can. If you strengthen the engine mount, then the empennage or longerons become the weakest link. Each component has its own failure point and mode.
Likewise for automation. Sure, it relieves fatigue from hand flying. It brings amazing weather, terrain, and traffic information into the cockpit. Situational awareness is a snap. Fuel burn can now be accurately estimated to within a few pounds on a multi-hour flight.

But it also means we’re more disconnected from the airplane since we aren’t physically flying it. Up and down drafts are masked because the autopilot handles them for us — until it trims all the way to the critical angle of attack. I’ve seen that happen multiple times without the pilot even being aware of it. Our hand flying skills and instrument scan decay due to lack of use.

This sort of thing is especially unnerving to me because I’m aware of it and yet have also fallen victim to it myself on occasion.

I think of automation the same way I think of air traffic control. It’s a safety asset, but one I must constantly monitor because it has failed before and it will fail again some day. I’ve been vectored into traffic, sent across a localizer toward a mountain (ie. forgotten about), and given instructions meant for another aircraft. I’ve even had a controller attempt to cancel my active IFR flight plan in mid-flight without my assent.

Automation is no different. The challenge is to keep our skills sharp and expect the unexpected. If hand-flying skill was well established in the beginning of a pilot’s flying career, that’s not an insurmountable challenge. The modern aviator, though, sees this automation from a very early point, and for some of them, the basic flying skills are not well established. The automation serves to mask the inadequacies. As long as everything keeps running properly, no harm/no foul.

When it doesn’t? Well, that’s where the rock meets the not-so-proverbial hard place, as we’re starting to discover.

It occurs to me that flying “raw data” after a long period away from hand-flying can be as challenging as the transition to a new airplane. I see many similarities in initial pilot performance, especially if the aviator has been confined to a single aircraft type for a long period.

In that regard, I believe one of the best ways to keep yourself sharp is to fly varying types of aircraft. If, for example, you fly an aerobatic plane or a glider in addition to that shiny jet, odds are you’ll enhance and retain skills you probably aren’t even aware of. Perhaps that aptitude is simply the mental agility to move from one cockpit to another. Maybe it’s an improved competence with pitch/power relationships or comfort with unusual attitudes.

However poorly I may have explained it, I’ve simply noticed that those who fly multiple types of aircraft seem to be able to adapt to changes faster than those who don’t. I doubt this has as much to do with physical ability as it does mental acuity.

The rudimentary flight skills must be developed in primary training because there is little room made for them during advanced ratings, and automation can easily mask the lack of those abilities until they are the only thing standing between a pilot and a Very Bad Day. As such, the case is made for conducting primary flight training in a non-automated aircraft, or at the very least, with the automation fully disabled.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’d take it one step further and suggest that every pilot should learn to fly in the most stone-simple tailwheel airplane available. They’re economical. They put the focus on primary flight skills most likely to atrophy later. They simply will not abide poor airmanship. And most of all, they’re fun to fly. Isn’t that why we got into aviation in the first place?

Unfortunately, the trend is headed in the opposite direction — even Cubs come with glass panels these days! But as far as I know, they’re still making them with an “off” switch, so the hope for a better training experience will continue to spring eternal.

It’s a small, small, small, small, GA world

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015
Mighty Oregon

Mighty Oregon

Like it or not, we are all connected in our small GA world. Think of a big bowl of spaghetti, all the noodles are intertwined and touching one another. Whether it is a grassroots group promoting General Aviation to kids, a cool FBO or business, or the pilot who makes a bad decision on a go-no-go, we are linked.

I have always heard that we are only as good as the worst player on the team. Twitter, Facebook, 24-hour news streaming makes nearly everything we do in GA public. That said, we need to make sure that in our small small world that we practice kindness, accuracy and really good decision-making.

Think about how many questions we get from the non-flying public when someone runs out of fuel, flies into a restricted airspace, or puts five people in a four-place airplane. Sometimes it is hard to know what to say. I don’t know where I saw this, but I am reminded of the saying, “How would this look on the NTSB report?” We all know bad drivers, but when there is a car accident rarely is a microphone shoved in our face to be an “expert” on driving a car. Yet, as pilots, when there is an incident or accident, we might suddenly find ourselves in the spotlight. What would your flying be like if you imagined that whatever you were doing in the plane, how ever you were flying, was going to be publicized as an example of General Aviation? Perhaps if we thought this way, there would be a bit less hot-dogging and “Hey watch this!” moments.

Skydive Taft

Skydive Taft

On to the good news and a few of my observations of folks getting it right. I have always been able to feel whether businesses are warm or cool. By that, the warm businesses are welcoming, laid-back and easy. The cool business might be stunningly perfect, but lacks the connection to the customer. Below are a few examples of warm businesses and great examples of being an ambassador for their airport and aviation.

Skydive Taft, Taft California  Recently I found myself in Taft, CA with a few hours to kill. I thought that heading to the local municipal airport might be a good use of time. My friend, Dan Lopez is a pilot for Skydive Taft. Upon arrival in the parking lot of the airport, it was immediately noted to be a super chill, fun place to hang out.

Every single one of the employees I met, from dive instructors, to the van driver, to the owner of the business was so very friendly. With a bunkhouse for the employees, workers talking about their next dive, and oodles of patrons milling about, the environment felt more like summer camp than anything. I think that a business such as Skydive Taft is so wonderful for the airport and the community. When we have healthy businesses at airports it is a win-win situation for the business and the airport.

Classic Wings Aero

Classic Wings Aero

Classic Wings Aero Services, Scott Gifford, owner, Hood River, Oregon.  On Thursday I flew into the airport where I learned to fly. Landing after about 4.5 hours of flight I remembered that my tow bar was not in the airplane. [I did however have a full tube of toothpaste and a full water bottle]. I looked for a transient spot that I could pull forward into, but there was none. I whipped around and got as close as I could knowing that my son and I would be pushing the airplane into her space. Before I knew there was a friendly gentleman coming up to the window. He asked if he could help and I told him about my sans-tow bar situation. Without a word he started pushing the airplane with both of us in it, to the parking spot. We made conversation and he helped us tie down the plane. When I asked him what kind of plane he flew, he just gestured and with a broad stroke of his hand said that he was the owner of the FBO. It was after 7 p.m. on a Thursday and the owner of the FBO was there to help us. Scott opened up the building for us. Classic Wings is a full service FBO with fuel and flight instruction nestled in the Columbia River Gorge.

Exile Aviation

Exile Aviation

Alamogordo-White Sands, New Mexico [KALM]

Alamogordo-White Sands, New Mexico [KALM]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exile Aviation located at Alamogordo-White Sands, New Mexico [KALM].  Twin brothers Chase and Travis Rabon started in Exile Aviation in 2009. To me they look to be in their 20s, full of energy and enthusiasm. Exile has offered fuel for the past three years. Chase is the mechanic and Travis is a CFI. This FBO has to be one of the most friendly I have been to. In an area known for blowing sand and winds, the folks at Exile really look out for their visitors by arranging hangars to protect our airplanes. These two go the extra mile in offering courtesy cars and fuel as well as arranging hangars, maintenance, meeting rooms or flight instruction.

Century Aviation Services, Klamath Falls, Oregon.  This past Sunday I was happily flying at 9500 feet enroute to Santa Maria, CA from Hood River, Oregon when my son exclaimed, “I need you to land now!” My poor 15 year old was nauseous and uncomfortable. I notified the tower that I had a passenger that was ill they told me I could have any runway I would like. After a quick descent in to Klamath Falls I was directed to Century Aviation FBO.

Century Aviation Services

Century Aviation Services

Immediately a friendly lineman who asked if we needed help met me. I let him know that we needed a cool place to wait out an upset tummy. The FBO staff was so nice. We were able to rest and my son recuperate. I spoke with one of the line staff named Jacob Miller. Twenty year-old Jacob was saving up money to get his private ticket. He told me that he was one of the original winners of the scholarship sponsored by Barry Schiff a few years ago. As we talked about his future he said that he wanted to join the Army and learn to fly helicopters. I said that perhaps things were calming down in the Middle East. He said, “Even if it isn’t, I would like to go and help my country.” Wow.

Old Glory

Old Glory

I suppose the long and short of it is that we all are Ambassadors for aviation. Our legacy can be positive, neutral or negative. I was raised to work hard and focus my attention on what I believe in. Perhaps we can all take a look in the mirror and see what our reflection is. Let’s be good stewards of our airplanes, airports and each other.

 

 

 

FAA Reauthorization from a Global Perspective

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When he put it like that, I certainly did!

Converging Technologies Promise Really Different Planes

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

If you think aircraft in the future will look like and operate like those we now find familiar, let me try to dissuade you of that.

There are technologies converging that are clearly going to change the essentials of the flying process and experience. Consider these.

Additive manufacturing

The FAA has now cleared the first 3D printed part to fly in a commercial jet engine. GE Aviation, which is making the fuel nozzle for a new generation of jet engine. They say that the 3D-printed nozzles are five times more durable than the previous model. 3D printing allowed engineers to use a simpler design that reduced the number of brazes and welds from 25 to just five.

They have also run a 3D printed micro jet turbine up to 33,000 rpm, marking the first known test of a jet engine built using additive manufacturing.
The CMC parts help with weight and heat management. They are two-thirds lighter than the metal equivalent and can operate at temperatures 20 percent higher than their metallic counterpart, at levels where most alloys grow soft.

Image courtesy of GE Reports.

Image courtesy of GE Reports.

GE claims that it will be manufacturing 100,000 additive parts by 2020 (five years from now). Already they have over three hundred 3D printing machines currently in use throughout the company.

Do you think that that capability will find its way into GA? Of course it will.

Advanced cabin displays

Would you like a biz jet without windows? Something like this?

Image courtesy of Technicon Design

Image courtesy of Technicon Design

You might if the inside looked like this:

Image courtesy of Technicon Design

Image courtesy of Technicon Design

Technicon Design’s Paris office designed the jet to display to 360-degree views that are simulated on internal screens from external cameras that capture the surrounding environment in real time, according to the Daily Mail.

Fox News said the images displayed in the interior cabin—including the walls and even the ceiling—give passengers the feeling of flying through the air in an invisible vessel.

You will be able to project anything on these screens . . . when you get tired of the view outside!

Electric twin

The Airbus Group’s electric E-Fan experimental aircraft made its first public test flight at E-Aircraft Day in Bordeaux, France recently. The electric E-Fan training aircraft is an innovative technology experimental demonstrator based on an all-composite construction.

Airbus plans to certify the next version of its electric E-Fan as a two-place trainer, to be followed by a four-seater. Airbus Group photo.

Airbus plans to certify the next version of its electric E-Fan as a two-place trainer, to be followed by a four-seater. Airbus Group photo.

Their website says Airbus Group plans to further develop the E-Fan technology demonstrator and to produce and market two versions of the aircraft by a subsidiary named VoltAir. The two-seater version E-Fan 2.0 will be a fully electric training aircraft powered only by batteries. The four-seat version E-Fan 4.0 will be a training and general aviation aircraft which will also have a combustion engine within the fuselage to provide an extended range or endurance.

Airbus sees this as the early experience in design and industrialization of an “E-Thrust” hybrid electric regional aircraft in about the 2050 timeframe.

But those are just little “experimental” engines, you say. Well, how about this:

Big, light electric motors

Powerful Ultralight Motor for Electrically Powered Aircraft. Photo credit: www.siemens.com/press

Powerful Ultralight Motor for Electrically Powered Aircraft. Photo credit: www.siemens.com/press

Gizmag reports that “researchers at Siemens have created a new prototype electric motor specifically designed for aircraft that weighs in at just 50 kg (110 lb) and is claimed to produce about 260 kW (348 hp) at just 2,500 RPM. With a quoted power five times greater than any comparable powerplant, the new motor promises enough grunt to get aircraft with take-off weights of up to 1,800 kg (2 ton) off the ground.”

Siemens says that new simulation techniques and sophisticated lightweight construction have enabled the drive system to achieve a unique weight-to-performance ratio of five kilowatts (kW) per kilogram (kg). Comparable electric motors that are used in industrial applications deliver less than one kW per kg. The performance of the drive systems used in electric vehicles is about two kW per kg. Since the new motor delivers its record-setting performance at rotational speeds of just 2,500 revolutions per minute, it can drive propellers directly, without the use of a transmission.

So think about that a minute. How much does your Cessna weigh? (Certainly less than 4,000 pounds I’d guess.) And how many hundreds of pounds does your engine weigh? (The engine in my airplane that generated 350hp was over 800 pounds!)

This little motor will really drive your plane through the air.

Flexible geometry control surfaces

But wait! Even conventional control surfaces are going away.

NASA is doing away with ailerons and flaps! They and the Air Force Research Laboratory and FlexSys are making wings that smoothly change their shape between a range of -2 to 30 degrees to generate the directional inputs for flight. Watch the video here.

NASA photo

NASA photo

These new variable geometry control surfaces increase efficiency and decrease noise. Right now the process is mechanical, but ultimately, material science has already developed the basic materials that change their configuration based only upon electrical signals to material.

These advances are just the beginning—the leading edge—of far more breakthroughs that will dramatically change what it means to both be a pilot and to fly.

Advancing an Aviation Education … The Hard Way

Monday, May 25th, 2015
Cessna 150

Cessna 150

Last month I pointed the finger at a couple of unique instructors, both of whom were key to my life of flying airplanes. A few e-mails rightly took me to task wondering about my own role in years of education experience, so this month, I decided to share an early experience from not long after I earned my private certificate. It proves, yet again, that many of us live to be old pilots certainly because of our experience, but sometimes too thanks to plain dumb luck.

I was returning home on a warm July afternoon in a Cessna 150 with maybe 125 hours penned in my logbook. Sky Harbor airport, my base back then in Chicago’s north suburbs, is long gone, but was remembered as a single north-south, hard-surfaced runway about 3,000 feet long. The approach from the north was clear, except for the Walgreen’s HQ a mile or so away, but there were trees near the approach from the south, something the local town refused to trim because they were considered a necessary element to the graveyard they shaded near the runway 36 numbers.

My FAA examiner told me a few months earlier my private was a lesson to learn, but sometimes we simply don’t know what we don’t know.

On final approach that afternoon I saw another aircraft on the runway and knew I needed to keep an eye on him in case he didn’t clear. But of course they always did so I added flaps 40 and of course a bunch of power to make up for all the drag. For those of you who fly the 152 these days, you have no feeling for just how much drag “flaps 40” on a Cessna 150 added to an approach. Let’s just say it’s a bunch and was one reason the later 152s were limited to flaps 30. In the July humidity I could feel there wasn’t much elevator room to play with as the nose pitched up and down, but it was flying.

Then the other airplane stopped dead on the runway and I knew a go-around was needed, one that meant full power and a climb to the side of the runway to keep the airplane on the runway in site.

With all that drag and full power, the 150 kept trying to pitch up and I kept pushing back to avoid a stall. So there I was pushing the nose down for safety and not climbing and now scared to death to let the nose pitch up because it might stall. I did the next best thing … I just kept flying straight ahead creeping up a few feet at a time watching the hangars pass below with people obviously staring up wondering what I was doing.

Readers are probably wondering why I didn’t raise some of the flaps to dump some of that drag. Great question. I guess I didn’t remember much from training about go-arounds or a good way to milk the flaps up while close to the ground right then. I’m sure I must have seen a go-around at least once or twice in flight training but right then and there I kept thinking I was about to fall out of the sky.

At this point, I’m maybe half a mile north of the airport still no more than about 200 feet agl. when it came to me … the flaps were still down. So if the flaps hanging down was the problem, getting rid of them was the solution I thought. I remembered about then not to bring them all up at once, but honestly I was pretty scared watching the roof of he Walgreens HQ coming up beneath me and the Interstate just beyond.

Cessna 150 flap switch

Courtesy, ken@cessna150.net

I hit the flap switch to bled off the drag and instantly felt the old burgundy colored airplane leap ahead … that is, just before it started to fall. The early Cessna 150s had a flap switch that had gotten more than their fair share of novice pilots into trouble because it used three positions … down, neutral and up. In order to milk the flaps up, I should have brought the switch to up long enough to return to flaps 30 before returning the switch to neutral.

Of course, that’s not what I did. In my haste to climb, I just flicked the switch and in about 15 seconds went from flaps 40 to 0. The part about flaps adding lift seemed to have completely escaped me too I guess.

I only avoided parking the 150 in the Walgreens’ employee lot that afternoon by yanking back on the control wheel more out of fear than anything else. With all the drag gone and me being the only passenger, the little airplane climbed just fine back to pattern altitude and around the patch for a safe landing a few minutes later.

Forgetting that flap switch was one mistake I never made again. I also made sure I reminded students about it when I became a teacher myself years later. And yes, we practiced plenty of go-arounds before I even sent them out solo.

When to say “no” to maintenance

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

Ken is the proud owner of a late-model high-performance single-engine airplane. It’s a gorgeous machine, with wall-to-wall glass in the cockpit, a big turbocharged engine, 500 hours on the Hobbs meter, almost no squawks, and still under factory warranty on both engine and airframe. So when Ken took it to a well-known factory-authorized service center for its annual inspection, he expected that it would be relatively painless. Imagine his shock when the shop presented him with an estimate of more than $8,500. That’s when he called me for advice.

I reviewed the shop’s estimate. It started out with a flat-rate charge for the annual inspection (performed in accordance with the manufacturer’s annual inspection checklist) of $2,850. This was 30 hours of labor at the shop’s rate of $95/hour, which in my experience was right on target for this make and model.

Probing deeper

The next item that caught my eye was a $200 estimate for cleaning the engine’s fuel injector nozzles. I used to do such prophylactic nozzle cleaning on my own airplane until about 10 years ago, when I had an illuminating discussion with George Braly (of GAMI and Tornado Alley Turbo fame), who is arguably the world’s expert on fuel nozzles. George pointed out to me that there’s no valid reason to do such periodic nozzle cleaning, because the nozzles do not get dirty in service (since they are continuously being cleaned by a very effective solvent). He told me that in his experience with many thousands of GAMIjector nozzles, virtually all clogged nozzle events occurred shortly after maintenance during which the fuel system was opened up and some foreign material got into the system. That resonated with me, because in the first 12 years I owned my Cessna T310R, I experienced two clogged-nozzle episodes, and both occurred right after maintenance due to grease getting into the fuel system. So I stopped cleaning my nozzles 10 years ago, and haven’t had a clogged nozzle since. I advised Ken to decline the nozzle cleaning.

There was a $300 estimate to replace the O-rings on the brake calipers. I asked Ken whether he had spongy brakes or had any evidence of brake fluid leakage at the calipers. He said no. I suggested he decline the O-ring replacement.

Continental S-20 magnetoThere was a $1,700 estimate for “4-year overhaul of pressurized mags”—$700 for each magneto plus 3 hours to remove and reinstall. The aircraft is equipped with Continental S-20 mags, and the Continental Ignition System Master Service Manual X40000 calls for a 500-hour IRAN (inspect and repair as necessary), not an overhaul. The IRAN typically costs $300 to $400 per mag, depending on what parts need to be replaced. I suggested that Ken instruct the shop to do the 500-hour IRAN instead of the overhaul exchange, which would knock about $700 off the invoice.

There was a $400 estimate to replace the magneto pressurization filter. The filter is clear plastic (actually tinted green) so you can inspect it and see if it needs to be changed. It was clean as a whistle. I suggested that Ken decline the filter change.

Teledyne-Gill G-243 batteryNext was a $800 estimate to replace the battery. The aircraft manufacturer’s checklist recommends replacing it every two years, and Ken’s was two years old. But the battery manufacturer (Teledyne-Gill) recommends doing an annual capacity test and replacing the battery only when its capacity falls below 80% of specs. Using the capacity-test method, these batteries typically last 3 to 5 years before flunking the test. Another thing that bothered me was that the battery—a Gill G-243—cost $395 at Aircraft Spruce, but was listed on the estimate as costing $774. Now I don’t have a problem with shops making a fair profit on the parts they install, but marking up a $395 battery to $774 struck me as a bit much. So I suggested that Ken decline the battery change, wait until the battery flunks its capacity check, and then consider buying the battery and installing it himself.

Then there was a $320 estimate to change the filter in his TKS anti-icing system. The manufacturer recommends changing this filter every 2 years (and his was 2 years old), but in hundreds of filters changed we’ve never seen one that wasn’t spotlessly clean. The shop agreed with this observation. I advised Ken that unless he had some reason to believe someone dumped a Diet Coke into his TKS tank, he should decline the TKS filter change.

Bottom line

Ken called the service center and politely declined the various items that I’d recommended. Ken reported that the shop’s Director of Maintenance had no problem complying with Ken’s instructions, and the invoice wound up some $3,000 lower than it would have been otherwise. That’s enough to buy a fair amount of 100LL, even at today’s prices.

Now many of you are probably thinking that this service center was trying to rip Ken off, and he should never take his airplane back there again. I disagree.

Gavel + wrenchIn today’s litigious world, any mechanic or shop that doesn’t recommend following the manufacturer’s guidance to the letter risks being sued and taken to the cleaners if anything goes wrong. Therefore, in my view, Ken’s service center was almost compelled to present Ken with the estimate that they did. Call it “defensive maintenance” or “CYA” if you wish, but it’s the way things are in today’s post-GARA, non-tort-reform world.

The way I see it, the responsibility for “just saying no” to these over-the-top maintenance recommendations lies with the aircraft owner, not the shop. If the aircraft owner instructs the shop (in writing) that he declines some manufacturer-recommended maintenance task, that takes the shop off the liability hook and allows them to do things the way the owner wants them done without fear of being sued.

Therefore, if an owner wants to avoid paying through the nose for such defensive maintenance, he needs to learn when to say no.

When to say no

Learning when to say no takes a good deal of knowledge and experience, but there are some basic rules. The most important rule is that you never say no to any maintenance procedure that is required by regulation. For example, FAR Part 43 Appendix D requires that every annual inspection on a piston aircraft must include a compression test of the cylinders, cutting open the oil filter to inspect for metal, and running up the engine to check that critical engine operating parameters (oil pressure, static RPM, etc.) are within normal limits. Mechanics are also required to comply with any “Airworthiness Limitations” contained in the manufacturer’s service manual or ICAs. Any applicable Airworthiness Directives must be complied with. All these things are non-negotiable.

Airworthiness definedIt’s also best to avoid saying no to proposed repairs that the inspecting A&P/IA considers to be “airworthiness items.” Those are generally discrepancies that he considers to be safety-of-flight items, and will not be comfortable approving the aircraft for return to service until they are corrected. But don’t be fooled. Many of the items that I suggested Ken decline were listed on the shop’s estimate as “Airworthy Item,” yet when Ken instructed the shop not to do them, they accepted his direction without argument. So just because an item is listed on the estimate as an airworthiness item doesn’t necessarily mean that it really is one. When in doubt, say no and see how the IA responds. If he tells you he’s not comfortable signing off the annual unless you approve the repair, then it’s time to re-think your position.

Good candidates for saying no to include time-directed maintenance recommendations for things that can be readily done on-condition instead. Ken’s battery, pressurization filter, brake O-rings and TKS filter are good examples. (So are most engine and propeller TBOs in my opinion, but not everyone agrees with me.) Consider ignoring the time recommendations and replace or repair these items only when inspection shows that they need to be replaced or repaired. We should only be maintaining things on time (like the 500-hour magneto IRAN) if there’s no practical way to maintain them on-condition.

Also consider saying no to preventive maintenance items intended to prevent failures whose consequences you consider acceptable. For example, replacing your vacuum pump every 500 hours (per the manufacturer’s recommendation) is silly if you have dual vacuum pumps or a standby vacuum system or a backup electric attitude indicator. If a vacuum pump failure doesn’t affect safety of flight, why not simply run it to failure and then replace it? Ditto if you have dual alternators.

Finally, consider saying no to an overhaul if an IRAN will do the job (as with Ken’s mags), and consider saying no to replacing anything that can be repaired instead.

The art of saying no is definitely an acquired skill, but one that can save you a small fortune in reduced maintenance costs once you get the hang of it. Like any acquired skill, practice makes perfect.

Two Mooneys, Eight Paws, Three Pilots and Love

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

Two Mooneys, Eight Paws, Three Pilots and Love

Three Mooneys Ready to Go

Three Mooneys Ready to Go

A few weeks ago, I was able to fly my first Pilots N Paws [PNP] mission. The day was a testament to what our General Aviation airplanes can accomplish to give back in service as well as install a permanent smile on our faces.

Gary, the Rescue Pup

Gary, the Rescue Pup

The mission was to help Gary, the twelve-pound Shih Tzu get from the temporary shelter in Long Beach to the San Francisco Bay Area. If you were driving that route, it would take eight and a half hours. But luckily for Gary it was #FlyFast Saturday. His total flight time was under two hours.

The first leg was flown by veteran PNP Mooney pilot, John Baker in his 1993 Bravo. John has flown over 100 dogs and cats on their “freedom flights.” His enthusiasm and zeal for the charity flights for dogs and cats is quite contagious.

Mooney 1, John Baker

Mooney 1, John Baker

After John landed we agreed to meet outside Art Craft Paint. We completed some paperwork and unloaded Gary.

My co-pilot for the day is a great friend, fellow pilot and Mooney Girl, Cat. I thought it was very appropriate that Cat was helping us with the dogs.

Cat and Jolie en route

Cat and Jolie en route

 

 

My four-legged Ambassador was Mooney Lucas Aviation Puppy who is in training to become a therapy dog. Mooney and Gary had a great time getting to know each other while John briefed me on the procedure for the receiving party.

We took a bunch of photos, loaded Mooney-dog in the back seat, got Gary in his crate in the back and departed Santa Maria airport for Livermore. Gary did a super job in flight, he only cried a little bit. One hour and twenty minutes later we touched down in Livermore.

Happy pilots and doggy

Happy pilots and doggy

I cannot begin to express what the flight did for ME. I had so much fun seeing John again, albeit for a brief time. Cat and I jib jabbed all the way up and back. She flies a cute little C152. She could not get over the 150kts over the ground on the way up and 160 kts. on the way home. The satisfaction of bringing Gary to his forever home was wonderful.

I want to encourage my fellow Mooniacs  and all pilots to use their aircraft in service to others. We have these beautiful airplanes. Let’s use them to make our world a better place. I am still grinning about Gary, a fun name for a dog. Then again, mine is named Mooney!

 

Those Lousy Checklists

Friday, May 1st, 2015

Ah, the checklist. If Shakespeare was a pilot, he’d have written an ode to it.

Once confined to the world of aviation, formal checklist discipline is now common in hospitals, assembly lines, product design, maintenance, and just about any other instance where loss of essential time, money, or bodily function can result from improper procedures or forgotten items.

Some pilots can’t imagine flying without one. Like a child wandering the yard without their favorite blanket, they’d quite literally be lost without that laminated piece of paper guiding them through each phase of flight. I’ve seen pilots who seemed to enjoy using the checklist more than the actual flying.

Others have a difficult time understanding why a written list is needed at all, especially in simple or familiar aircraft. “Use a flow or mnemonic and let’s get going!”, they’d say. While I disagree with that attitude, I understand where it comes from: too many badly-designed checklists.

As anyone who’s operated a wide variety of aircraft types (I’ve flown over 60) can tell you, poor checklists are more often the rule than the exception, and the worst of them will leave a long-lasting bad taste in your mouth. They disrupt the flow of a flight much the way an actor with poor timing can disrupt a scene.

One of the great aviation mysteries is why so many lousy checklists continue to exist. They’re not limited to small aircraft, either. The manufacturer-provided checklist for the Gulfstream IV, for example, is comically long. I don’t know who designs these things, but I highly doubt it’s the line pilot who’s going to be using it day in and day out.

The answer to such cosmic riddles is far above my pay grade. What I can say for sure is that it’s vital for aviators to understand both the purpose for a checklist and the proper way to use one.

The purpose should be self-evident: to ensure that nothing important gets missed. Lowering the landing gear, setting the pressurization controller, those sorts of items. The key word is important, and I think that’s where many checklists fall apart because once the document gets too long, human nature dictates that pilots will either skip items inadvertently or leave the entire thing stowed.

Proper checklist usage? Now that’s something a bit more complex. When an aviator is new to an aircraft, the checklist serves as a “do” list. In other words, each item is read and then the action is performed. Even if a cockpit flow exists and is being taught, the list will have to be read and performed one step at a time because the pilot is simply unfamiliar with the location of switches and controls.

As time goes by, the flow and/or checklist is slowly memorized. Eventually the pilot reaches the point where they’re actually faster and more comfortable performing the items from memory. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a good thing, because it allows the checklist to serve as a CHECK list. Once everything is done, you quickly read through the items on the page to ensure you haven’t forgotten anything.

In my experience, it’s not the neophyte who is at greatest risk for missing something, it’s the grizzled veteran who whips through the flows at lightning speed and then neglects to use the checklist at all. It’s overconfidence. They’re so sure they haven’t forgotten anything of life-altering consequence. And to be honest, they’re usually right — but that’s not the point.

I see this kind of failure quite frequently when flying glass panel aircraft with pilots who are computer-centric Type-A personalities. They’re literally too fast with the flows and need to slow down a bit.

Caution is also warranted when circumstances force a pilot to perform tasks out of their normal order. Often this happens due to interruption from ATC, line personnel, passengers, weather, or even another pilot.

Speaking of weather, here’s a case in point: I was in New Jersey getting a jet ready for departure during a strong rainstorm. We had started up the airplane to taxi to a place on the ramp where it was somewhat protected from the weather so our passengers wouldn’t get quite as soaked when they arrived. That simple action broke up the usual preflight exterior flow and as a result I neglected to remove the three landing gear pins. Thankfully the other pilot caught it during his walk-around, but it shows how easily that sort of thing can happen.

The best checklists, the ones that are truly effective, share some common traits. For one thing, they’re short and sweet. They hit the critical items in a logical order and leave the rest out.

In an aerobatic aircraft, a pre-takeoff check would cover the fuel selector, canopy, fuel mixture, flight controls, etc. In a swept-wing business jet, on the other hand, the critical items are different. Flaps become a vital item, because unlike other aircraft, if those aren’t set right the airplane can use far more runway than you’ve got available. It may not even fly at all.

Checklist design and usage is an under-appreciated skill. As with many things in aviation, when it’s done right it’s a thing of elegance. Art, almost. So next time you’re flying, take a critical look at your checklist and the way you use it. How do you — and it — measure up?

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

Friday, April 24th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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