Archive for the ‘Authors’ Category

Bursting bubbles with, ‘Birdmen’

Monday, August 11th, 2014

As an aviation enthusiast, you are no doubt aware of the legend of Orville and Wilbur Wright. You may even be familiar with the exploits of their arch nemesis, Glenn Curtiss. May I say with the best of intentions, however, you probably don’t know the whole story behind these amazingly talented men and the struggles they underwent. What most of us know is the legend, not the fact. The myths that surround real men are intriguing. But believe me, there is so much more to the story than most of us ever suspected.

I’ve just finished reading Lawrence Goldstone’s intensely researched narrative, Birdmen. At 448 pages, it’s hefty. But so is the story Goldstone has to tell. Thank goodness Ballantine Books saw merit to the project. It’s amazing.

Most of us are aware the Wright’s were incredibly gifted engineers. These two men, without a high school diploma between them, bested the sharpest scientists of the day as they methodically experimented with the ever increasing complexity of machines they intended to fly. It’s hard to unsee what you’ve seen, or unlearn what you know—but imagine a time when nobody, absolutely nobody really knew how to get an aircraft into the air. Once airborne, there wasn’t a single person on the planet who had any idea how to control the thing.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There were lots of ideas—but most of them were wrong. It took two ingenious men, well matched and completely driven to achieve their goal, to figure out the basics.

And that’s where the trouble started. Once the Wright’s flew, others wanted to fly. If they can do it, I can do it; or so the thinking went. Although it was a relatively small group of participants, interest was very high. And like today an amazing invention tends to spawn similar inventions. But how similar? When is the line of patent infringement crossed, and what might the cost be to prevent legal action through the payment of licensing fees? It’s one of the great tragedies of our industry that Wilbur Wright, the man who could reasonably be singled out as the driving force behind heavier-than-air-flight, became so embroiled in legal actions that he drove himself into a self-imposed prison of paperwork and unrelenting stress. Orville the craftsman could build the airplane, and tweak the motor, and fly as well as anyone in his day. But it was Wilbur who drove the team forward, and it was Wilbur who became so fixated on the legal processes necessary to gain ownership of the skies that he gave up aircraft design and a seat at the controls of his own aircraft in favor of endless meetings with businessmen, and lawyers, and judges.

Curtiss got airborne after the Wrights, and certainly learned a great deal from what the pioneering brothers had done. But when he got into the game he came on like gangbusters. He innovated, he pushed the limits of the machinery. He became a sensation and so did his aircraft. The former motorcycle racer placed ailerons between the wings of his biplane, doing away with wing warping. He created new control systems, increased horsepower, and built the first functional seaplanes. He even invented tricycle gear.

If you have a penchant for aviation, you really should consider reading Birdmen. Our industry is nearly 111 years old, yet already we’ve lost so much of its history. Lawrence Goldstone rediscovers a significant portion of it for us, packages it up into a beautifully written story, and shares it with the world.

Read it. Seriously. Go read this book.

It may be a stretch to say the Wrights and Curtiss hated each other, but they certainly weren’t exchanging Christmas cards or birthday greetings. Which makes it all that much more ironic that the companies founded by the Wrights and Curtiss would one day become the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.

Separated by a fiercely competitive spirit and the quest for wealth and fame, the Wrights and Curtiss have been united by history and commerce. The companies these giants founded, now bound together as a single entity, continue to thrive to this day. You owe it to yourself to know the story behind the story. You’ll find it in Birdmen.

Regulations Are Written In Blood: Why Planesharing Is Grounded For Now

Thursday, August 7th, 2014


planesharing is grounded until further notice

In aviation, we say that “regulations are written in blood.” Pilots often complain about regulations, but they generally recognize that those regulations are often based on experience and events that have cost others their property, their lives, or both. We know that the legal environment of aviation often lags behind reality. Technical innovations can make older regulations obsolete. But sometimes the innovation doesn’t change the relevance of the regulations or dilute the blood in which they are written.

Planesharing Explained

Laws should serve as a safety net, not a noose. Aircraft are expensive to own and operate. Now, more than ever, making aircraft more useful and ubiquitous is critical for the survival of aviation. Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, VBRO, GetAround, and BoatBound make it easy to put substantial assets like cars, boats, and homes to work. There is no federal statute that makes renting out your spare bedroom generally illegal.

“Planesharing” tries to apply the same model to private air travel. Planesharing is the concept of pilots use services on the Internet to post details of their upcoming flights in the hopes that potential passengers will find the flight information, join the pilots on their flights, and split the cost of the flight with them.

Startups like Flytenow, AirPooler, ShareMySky, AiirShare, Pro Rata Share, Wingman, and others have developed business models around facilitating planesharing. Venture capital should not be seen as some kind of signal that startups can ignore the rules the rest of us have to live by.

Pilots have been legally sharing the costs of privately operated flights for decades, but purpose-built online apps like these have made this kind of sharing more like commercial flying.

How Private and Commercial Flying are Different

It is sometimes said that the most dangerous part of a flight is the drive to the airport. That’s true, but only if you’re flying with a commercial operation. Airline (Part 121) and charter (Part 135) flying is something like 500 times safer than operations conducted by private pilots (generally conducted under Part 91). There’s good reason for this. Airlines and charter operators have to achieve rigorous certification of their aircraft, facilities, operations, and pilots and maintain that certification through constant monitoring, training, and investment. If you look at the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) in printed form, the requirements take up about an inch of thickness and that’s just the regulations themselves. Aircraft inspections happen at least every 100 hours of operating time. Operating specifications, maintenance records, pilot manuals, maintenance manuals, dispatcher manuals, and other necessary paperwork fills many linear feet of shelf space. Pilot experience could be as low as 250 or so hours, but most pilots flying for commercial operations have thousands.

Private operations, (under Part 91) on the other hand, don’t have to do as much. They’re subject to maybe a half inch of regulations and a few operating manuals. Private pilots might have as little as 50 hours of flight time. A mechanic may only be required to even touch the aircraft once a year.

It’s reasonable to accept more risk when flying with a private individual vs. a commercial operator. Flying a helicopter in combat has a lower accident rate than flying single piston engine airplanes. Remember folks, flying isn’t necessarily dangerous, but it is terribly unforgiving.

The Regulations and How Planesharing Gets Pilots In Trouble

This difference is the basis for the different FAA regulations for commercial and private operations. The regulation that applies to private pilots (FAR 61.133) says that “no person who holds a private pilot certificate may act as pilot in command of an aircraft that is carrying passengers or property for compensation or hire; nor may that person, for compensation or hire, act as pilot in command of an aircraft.” That same regulation goes on to say that “a private pilot may not pay less than the pro rata share of the operating expenses of a flight with passengers, provided the expenses involve only fuel, oil, airport expenditures, or rental fees.”

Planesharing depends on the “pro rata share” part of the regulation. As long as a private pilot operating under Part 91 collects only part of the money for the flight, he or she is in the clear, right? But let’s be honest. Privately this easy, and only when you start fishing about for people we have no prior relationship with do any of these new apps make anything easier. Blurring the lines between private and commercial flying is a problem. The confusion is in the uninitiated passenger believing that he or she is getting the commercial level of safety when the pilot is operating under the much more permissive rules of Part 91.

So the FAA typically applies a two-part litmus test.

1. Is the pilot “holding out” the service to the public? Put another way: How much does an operation look like an airline or charter service? FAA Advisory Circular AC-120-42 says that one becomes “a common carrier [i.e., an operation that requires the more rigorous certification] when it holds itself out or to a segment of the public as willing to furnish transportation within the limits of its facilities to any person who wants it.” What does a planesharing pilot do? Lists his or her flight and invites anyone with money to come sit in one of the other seats, right? Short of the person being overweight for the aircraft or being disagreeable in some way, a planesharing pilot is offering to furnish transportation to all comers.

2. Do the pilot and the passenger(s) have “common purpose” for the flight? The regulations (and all FAA guidance and rulings to date) clearly contemplate friends or family loading into a Cessna 172 and flying somewhere for dinner or sightseeing. The FAA requires that everyone in the aircraft have something in common about the mission. Planesharing encourages passengers who have no preexisting relationship with the pilot (otherwise, why is an online service necessary for them to find each other?) and it is almost certain that the pilot and passengers will have different objectives once they arrive at the destination. What are the chances that perfect strangers will turn out to be heading to the same golf course, restaurant, or shopping district? Even local flights which start and end at the same airport, which the FAA regulates as sightseeing flights are regulated. Air tour pilots are required to keep within a limited distance from the airport, submit to more drug tests, and hold at least a commercial pilot certificate.

It is possible to engage in planesharing in a compliant way. You build a group of friends over time, say on Pilots of America or a similar message board. You all agree to meet at a regional airport and fly in Bob’s Cessna 206 down to Sun ‘N Fun in Florida in March for three days to see the airshow and drool on the latest aircraft. You split the cost when it’s all over. Great.

But, if we’re being honest with ourselves, does anyone really think that many planesharing flights would work this way? A majority of them? Fewer? Any? The FAA administrator and staff are reasonably intelligent. The FAA can identify a sham when the FAA sees a sham and so can we. We need to be honest with ourselves and admit that most flights under the planesharing model are not legal under the current regulations. The arguments made by these companies that the rules don’t apply to them just don’t hold water.

Could the FAA come up with a safe harbor under the rule? Sure. What would that look like? A demonstrable pre-existing relationship between the pilot and passengers of at least such-and-such a duration, supported by family relationship or documentary evidence like date-stamped e-mail correspondence? A requirement that pilot and passengers all do the same thing at the destination, supported by a file folder full of consecutively-numbered concert tickets or a guest check with the appropriate number of entrees?

At what point do the administrative costs outweigh the benefit of such a safe harbor? It’s complicated. Previous legal interpretations from the FAA like here and here make this clear as mud. Creating a safe harbor under current regulation would be really tough. We’ve got to balance personal choice with public expectations of safety.

Anyway, we’re going to find out soon.  At least AirPooler and FlyteNow have petitioned the FAA for an administrative ruling about the legality of planesharing. The FAA told the pilot community that it would rule by mid-June, but that deadline has come and gone while the FAA continues to think about the issue. In the meantime, good on AirPooler for recently advising pilots to hold off on listing flights pending the FAA’s ruling. My opinion doesn’t really count for much. The ball is in the FAA’s court. Enforcement actions are possible and even likely before the smoke clears.

Why So Serious?

If you’ve read this far, you might wonder why I’m disparaging a potentially helpful and cool new aspect of the sharing economy. I love innovation and new ideas as much as anyone. I have a dog in this fight. But it’s a different dog and I’ve defined the fight for what I believe is a better way.

For aviation, collaborative consumption isn’t anything new. We’ve been buying and leasing back airplanes to flight schools and flying clubs for decades. The rest of the world was just catching up with us. There’s still plenty of room for innovation in the business of aviation. Two of my favorite examples are ForeFlight and SurfAir. They’ve disrupted the experience, without ignoring the rules.

Regulation and innovation can coexist. My own example is OpenAirplane which tackles the problem that we can solve legally by making more aircraft accessible to more pilots. The idea is to make everyone’s pilot certificate more useful.

In a nutshell: It used to be that each airplane rental operation (and its insurance company) required that a pilot do a local checkout flight in the airplane before renting it. OpenAirplane standardized the checkout process and with support of insurance industry. Now, pilots go through a single annual checkout flight that tests their skills and verifies that they are as safe and competent as the FAA requires. The standards are pretty much the same ones that the FAA uses when initially certifying pilots and they’re evaluated by designated flight instructors who are familiar with the process. After that Universal Pilot Checkout, the pilot can rent the same kind(s) or airplane(s) at any participating facility (currently more than 60 across the US). It’s all completely legal.

While planesharing could expand the addressable market for our company, we’re not willing to put pilots at risk of violations or worse. OpenAirplane solves as much of the problem as we can solve without breaking the law. We put more pilots in more airplanes more often. We don’t do anything for non-pilot passengers yet, but only because – well – illegal.

But we still frequently get lumped in with planesharing operators when folks talk about developments in aircraft availability. We’re not a planesharing operation. And we don’t want to be unless he rules change. Planesharing can’t solve the problem that it claims to solve without a deregulation of private aviation or a big shift in FAA doctrine.

You Can’t Fool Newton and Bernoulli

The principles defined by Isaac Newton and Daniel Bernoulli govern the safety of flight. They don’t care about social networks or online collaboration, no matter how innovative or cute. And mountains of evidence tell us that Newton and Bernoulli favor the better-maintained aircraft, better-trained pilots, and more comprehensive operating procedures that one finds almost exclusively in commercial operations. As long as the safety of passengers – or at least honesty with passengers about the wildly different risk profile that they face in an aircraft with the average a planesharing pilot – is the point, planesharing doesn’t work.

The FAA regulations allocate privileges to pilots based on a careful balancing of those privileges with the skills and experience that they have demonstrated. Planesharing, as currently conceived and practiced, encourages private pilots to operate de facto charter services or air carriers. It’s a bad idea. Unless the FAA reverses its position, planesharing remains grounded.

The Ab Initio Flaw

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

Ecclesiastes tells us there’s nothing new under the sun. Where the pilot shortage debate is concerned, that’s definitely true. More than one industry veteran has wryly noted the “impending pilot shortages” of every decade since the Second World War. And considering the number of pilots trained during that conflict, you could say the shortage history goes back a lot further. How about to the very dawn of powered flight? I mean, Wilbur and Orville could have saved themselves tremendous time and money if only they’d had an experienced instructor to guide them!

Every “pilot shortage” article, blog post, and discussion I’ve seen centers around short-term hiring trends and possible improvements in salary and benefits for aviators. Nobody asked my opinion, but for what it’s worth, it seems both clear and logical that the regional airlines are hurting for pilots. The pay and working conditions at those companies are horrific. Major airlines, on the other hand, will probably never have trouble attracting people. I don’t know if that qualifies as a pilot shortage. I tend to think it does not. It’s more of a shortage of people who are willing to participate like lab rats in a Part 121 industry cost-cutting experiment.

What the pilot shortage mishegas really has me thinking about is the long-term possibility of ab initio schemes migrating to the United States and what a profoundly bad thing that would be for aviation at every level.

Who knew that JAL operates a huge fleet of Bonanzas?  For decades they operated an ab initio program out of Napa, California

Who knew that JAL operates a huge fleet of Bonanzas? For decades they operated an ab initio program out of Napa, California

According to Wikipedia, “ab initio is a Latin term meaning ‘from the beginning’ and is derived from the Latin ab (‘from’) + initio, ablative singular of initium (‘beginning’)”. In aviation, it refers to a method of training pilots. In fact, it’s the de facto technique in use for the majority of airlines around the world. Essentially, foreign airlines will hire people off the street who have no flight time or experience. They are shepherded through the various ratings and certificates necessary to fly an Boeing or Airbus while on the airline’s payroll.

This might sound like a brilliant idea — and to an airline, it probably is. Imagine, no bad habits or “we did it this way at my last job” issues, just well-trained worker bees who have been indoctrinated from day one as multi-pilot airline crew members.

I don’t know if the airlines love ab initio or not. What I do know is that non-U.S. airlines use it because there’s no other choice. The fertile, Mesopotamian breeding ground of flying experience we call general aviation simply does not exist in those countries. Without GA’s infrastructure, there are no light aircraft, flight schools, mechanics, or small airports where aspiring pilots can learn to fly. Those who do manage to get such experience more often than not get it here in the United States.

To put it another way, the “pilot shortage” has been going on in foreign countries since the dawn of aviation, and ab initio is the way they’ve solved the problem in most places.

So what’s my beef with this method of training? To put it simply, in an era of atrophying pilot skills, ab initio is going to make a bad problem worse. While it’s a proven way of ensuring a steady supply of labor, ab initio also produces a relatively narrow pilot who is trained from day one to do a single thing: fly an airliner. These airline programs don’t expose trainees to high Gs, aerobatics, gliders, sea planes, banner towing, tailwheels, instructing, or any of the other stuff that helps create a well-rounded aviator.

If airlines in the U.S. adopt the ab initio system, the pilots they hire will only experience things that are a) legally required, and b) directly applicable to flying a modern, automated airliner. Nothing else. After all, an airline will only invest what’s necessary to do the job. It’s a business decision. And in an era of cutthroat competition and razor thin profit margins, who could blame them?

The problem is, all those crap jobs young fliers complain about (and veterans seem to look back on with a degree of fondness) are vital seasoning for a pilot. He or she is learning to make command decisions, interact with employers and customers, and generally figure out the art of flying. It’s developing that spidey sense, taking a few hard knocks in the industry, and learning to distinguish between safe and legal.

These years don’t pay well where one’s bank account is concerned, but they are create a different type of wealth, one that’s often invisible and can prove vital when equipment stops working, weather is worse than forecast, or the holes in your Swiss cheese model start to line up.

Thus far, airline ab initio programs haven’t been a major part of the landscape here in the U.S. because our aviation sector is fairly robust. We are blessed with flying jobs which build the experience, skill, and time necessary for larger, more complex aircraft. But it’s easy to see why it might become an attractive option for airlines. For one thing, that darn pilot shortage. The cost of flying has risen dramatically over the past decade while the benefits (read: money) remain too low for too long. Airlines can cure the shortage by training pilots from zero hours… but at what cost?

Coming up through the ranks used to mean you were almost certain to be exposed to some of those elements. That’s why I believe ab initio would be just one more nail in the coffin of U.S. aviation, one more brick in the road of turning us into Europe. While I like visiting The Continent, I do not envy the size or scope of their aviation sector and sincerely hope we don’t go down that path.


Apparently I’m not the only one with ab initio on my mind. The day before the deadline for this post, AVweb reported on a major announcement from Boeing:

Now, with its subsidiary company Jeppesen, [Boeing] will undertake ab initio airline pilot training to provide a supply of pilots with an “Airline Transport Pilot License” (certificate in the U.S.) and a Boeing type rating who “will be ready to move into the first officer’s seat,” according to Sherry Carbary, vice president of flight services.

Boeing’s ab initio training program is divided into two parts. The first, run by Jeppesen, will take an applicant—referred to as a cadet—who must hold a first-class medical at the time of application, and put her or him through a screening process. Those who pass will go through 12-18 months of flight training, resulting in, according to David Wright, director of general aviation training, an Airline Transport Pilot License. The second phase involves the cadet going to a Boeing facility for another two months of training where she or he gets a first exposure to a full-motion jet simulator, and that will result in a type rating in a Boeing jet. Wright said that cadets will come out of the $100,000-$150,000 program with 200-250 hours of flying time and will be ready to go into the right seat of an airliner.

Boeing jets are operated by major airlines, not regionals. An American pilot would typically sport several thousand of hours of flight experience before being hired there. Now Boeing is proposing to put 200 hour pilots into their airplanes on a worldwide basis. That won’t fly (yet) in the U.S., where 1,500 hours is currently required for an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. But I believe the ab inito trend bodes ill for airlines and general aviation alike.

Coming Together, we can do big things and small things

Saturday, July 26th, 2014

As I type my husband and I are en route to Oshkosh for AirVenture 2014.

On the first day, after having flown 5.5 hours, we landed in Dumas, Texas  at Moore County Airport[KDUX]. What a sweet airport. A nice young man driving a golf cart who called me Ma’am greeted us. Quickly after that Brandon Cox, the airport manager, arrived to help us pump gas. He asked if we would like to go into town. When I said that we would, he said, “We can take care of you.” Brandon gave us the keys to a nice sedan with no form to fill out, and no questions asked. This is one of the small things I love about G.A.

Shortly before we left California’s Central Coast a group of 20 or so volunteers helped to help get New Cuyama Airport [L88] re-opened after having fallen into disrepair. The workers painted, raked, removed weeds, and filled cracks in the asphalt. Although there is still some work to do, it is amazing what big things a group of spirited volunteers can do when working together.

On the second big travel day we stopped in Poplar Grove, Illinois [C77]. This is place is an aviator’s paradise. Tina Thomas of Poplar Grove Airmotive warmly greeted us.

Golf cart ride around C77

Golf cart ride around C77

Shortly after that future aviatrix, Makayla gave us a complete tour of the airport, Vintage Wings & Wheels Museum and environs. In addition to being an accomplished tour-guide and golf cart driver, 8-year-old Makayla really was an ambassador for her home airport. She told us who lived where, what they flew or drove, or what kind of dog they had. She says that she wants to be a pilot, and I believe she will do it.

Mikayla doing the Jeppesen

Mikayla doing the “Jeppesen”

Inside the museum Judi Zangs the general manager met us. She explained that the idea of wings and wheels was a walk back in time to the airfields and roadways of history and to share America’s love for the automobile and airplane.

When we arrived back at the FBO Tina had found a place for us to hangar the Mooney for the overnight and offered to take us into town and pick us up in the morning. The sort of warm hospitality shown us at Poplar Grove is another example of how we can all do large and small things to inspire flight and protect airports.

Now we look forward to a short 45-minute Mooney flight into OSH14. Attending Oshkosh is a treat for every aviation lover. But it is also a wonderful networking opportunity for those of us working in GA advocacy and airport protection. There are always so many things to do at AirVenture.

I am particularly intrigued by Dan Pimentel’s Airplanista blog and #Oshbash event that I will be attending.   In speaking with Dan, he says that, “The annual #Oshbash event primarily a meet up for #avgeeks that live on Twitter. It’s a chance for tweeps on there to put faces with names.” The program for #Oshbash 2014 is the GA Power Collective, a panel discussion featuring seven influential representatives from the major aviation associations and organizations. He says, “I had written an article on my blog in December, 2013 stating that my “Christmas wish for aviation” was to grow the pilot population to 1,000,000 certificated pilots…from the current number of approximately 552,000. My article said that the major associations need to stop working in silos and begin working together…as a collective…to develop one winning strategy to stimulate growth in the pilot community. It is clear that what we have now is not working. This must change if general aviation wants to have a future.” The discussion will be moderated by Pimentel. Panelists include: Frank Ayers Jr. Chancellor, Prescott Campus Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Dick Knapinski, Senior Communications Advisor, EAA, Dr. Peggy Chabrian, President, Women in Aviation International, Brittney Miculka, Director of Outreach, AOPA, Dan Johnson President, Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association, Martha Phillips President, The Ninety Nines and Kathryn Fraser Director of Safety & Outreach, General Aviation Manufacturers Association. Personally I am anxious hear this lively discussion.

We simply cannot wait for a state or national aviation group to rescue our airport, be an ambassador for aviation, or provide a friendly face to our community. We have to do that for ourselves. We all must work together toward building the pilot population, preserving the pilots we do have, and protecting our airports.

I cannot wait to see all my “G.A. family” at Oshkosh. However it is a working vacation for me. At the end of the six days I will be tired, but it will be a happy tired.

Flying Trains on Tracks

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

You can’t look at the emerging future of aviation without being interested in drones.  Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are going to explode in the coming years.  No matter what your area of focus – agriculture, power generation and exploration, wildlife management and protection, news gathering, law enforcement, military, personal entertainment,  etc., the list goes on and on – there’s a drone in your future.

I’ve been specifically looking at drones lately for a specific project (that I’ll mention in a later post), and I’m impressed with the options and versatility of what is available for things like fighting poachers in Africa, just as a starter.

There are a host of small, model-aircraft-like platforms with very sophisticated sensor packages and GPS-based capabilities – most a byproduct of military development – that start around US$ 10,000 and go up from there.  The sky is literally the limit.

In this case, the limit may well be the concept that the folks at Biosphere, LLC and their Dorsal drone air freighter project.  This is really quite intriguing.  They have a number of models on the drawing boards, starting with their Quad aircraft (shown below) that is designed to establish a new commerce transportation bridge across oceans. Quad

This is an all-cargo, unpressurized aircraft with standardized containers that become an integral part of the structure of the aircraft.  It will have a 362,000 pound useful load capacity and a range of 8,400 nm.

With people removed from the aircraft, it can now fly in the most fuel efficient method, which usually means slower and lower altitudes resulting lower fuel costs.· In addition, weird looking heavy load configurations are possible as there would be no people on board requiring aesthetic design and noise reduction considerations.· McDonnell Douglas once had a program testing an unducted prop fan.· Even though it showed potential of having fuel savings of 30% or more, it was never pursued because the cabin noise would have been higher and it needed to fly slower than other jet aircraft.

Smart ‘load sensing’ containers are equipped with interlocks which connect together to become a structural load carrying component of the airframe. In commercial transport this could result in twice the payload delivered for the same amount of fuel.pic2

World trade today is standardized on Intermodal containers that can be shipped via cargo ships, trains, and trucks.  However, aircraft systems have developed their own LD containers and pallet systems, primarily because if they carried containers, the container weight would reduce the overall payload the aircraft is able to carry.  With today’s fuel costs, the drive to go to extremes to eliminate weight can be seen with the costs of developing new lighter systems such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A380 aircraft.

Re-purposing unmanned military aircraft is as simple as changing the Dorsal Pods (containers).  Logistics supply, mid-air fuel tanker, attack platform and more -  all with the same single drone airframe.

An interesting aspect of the concept is that it will only fly over the oceans from new, dedicated intermodal airfields near the coasts that connect the fleet with trains and trucks. In flight these giant drones will operate like trains on tracks – flying standard oceanic tracks on given schedules, just like flying trains.

Watch this short video on their commercial trans-oceanic drone concept.  Rather interesting.

Why mention this big commercial aircraft in a GA blog? Well, it is a clear indication of the present direction to the future of GA.

Tell me, in five years if these folks have got this kind of platform functioning, that the success, technology and principles of operation won’t very quickly percolate down to GA design . . . and even operation.  It would be very hard to develop a new aircraft in this environment that didn’t begin to integrate some of these innovations.

This is just the high end of a very rapidly moving trend that will obviously change the role and operation of GA aircraft in the not too distant future.

Money Well-Spent

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Local Club: Members, Manpower, and Money

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

Aero Club of Northern CaliforniaI’ve had great fun as President of the Aero Club of Northern California for the past 6 months. Local clubs and chapters are one of the many fun aspects of aviation and you probably already belong to one or more. If you’re not actively involved in running and/or participating in a club, please consider jumping in with both feet and becoming more involved. And if you’re in Northern California, please join our Aero Club and/or Like us on Facebook.

Clubs need your help. Another local club President told me that he volunteered a couple of years ago to be President “because he didn’t want to see the club fold.” As it was, the club hadn’t filed their required form 990 or 990N with the IRS for the prior 3 years, so it lost its 501(c)(3) non-profit status and now has to go through the application process again. Keeping track of those kinds of details are important for any non-profit club or organization. But how do you do that, when activity waxes and wanes over time and club officers come and go? By the way, that club is growing once again.

I still shake my head when I think of another local club I’ve belonged to in the past. At the first meeting of the year I attended, probably the January or February meeting, the newly elected President walked up to me and literally, the first words he said were, “We haven’t got your check yet.” Well, hello, nice to see you as well too. The art of warmly greeting and welcoming one of a club’s most precious resources—its members—was totally lost upon this fellow. As you might guess, the club didn’t do very well that year.

Earlier this year, I walked our board of directors through the 3 Ms: Members, Manpower, and Money. Without these, it’s hard for a club to grow and succeed.

We’re using the 3 Ms to focus our activities and so far it’s working. Membership is up by 60% over last year and we’re only halfway into the year.

Members has two important elements. First, we have to attract potential members and convince them to part with $40 each year to become a member, which is a non-trivial task. To do that, we have to have the second element in place: member programs and events attractive to members and potential members.

From a numbers perspective, our club has held just two events a year for the last few years. But they are outstanding events. The annual Crystal Eagle Award dinner is a world-class event that’s carefully planned for 8 months. Each dinner honors an individual whose accomplishments have significantly contributed to the advancement of aviation or space technology. The list of past recipients reads like a Who’s Who list of famous aviators and astronauts.

The “Eagle” is a large, beautiful piece of crystal glass we import from Italy. Our members then professionally mount it on a block of Redwood with a plaque. The dinner is also a fundraiser, raising money for scholarships that we award to students in S.F. Bay area aviation college programs.

This year, we have five events on the calendar, a significant increase over last year. We’re also moving toward a school year calendar of events, leaving the summer open for planning. That’s a practice we learned from the Aero Club of New England, which was founded over a hundred years ago! By the way, Aero Clubs are regional affiliate clubs of the NAA, the National Aeronautic Association. Check to see if one of the six regional Aero Clubs is located near you.

In addition to Members, a club needs Manpower, or volunteers. For the last few years, our board of directors did most of our club’s work. But that’s a formula for burnout, especially as we grow. Now, we never miss an opportunity to ask members to volunteer, so we can match them up with tasks to be done. We still have a long way to go in this area, but we’re making progress.

The last M is for Money. Obviously, any organization has to be able to cover its expenses. Our goal is to set member dues at a level that covers fixed expenses, so all additional money we raise can go to the scholarship fund. The silent auction, held at our annual dinner, is our most productive source of scholarship funds. There’s undoubtedly more we can do to raise money, but our initial focus is on improving the other two Ms first.

As I talk with other local club Presidents, I hear consistent themes. Members are getting older, it’s hard to find new younger members, and it’s difficult to find speakers for their regular monthly meetings.

We’ve taken a different approach to meetings. While the board of directors meets monthly, there are no regular monthly meetings for members! Members only meet at our major events, typically a luncheon presentation, dinner, or group tour. That takes the pressure off having to come up with an amazing speaker every four and a half weeks. Since the event dates are essentially random, members who might have a conflict with a regular monthly meeting can still attend. While they may have an occasional conflict with an event, at least they won’t have a conflict for every club meeting.

What challenges do your local clubs face and what solutions have you found?

Fuzzy crystal balls, the Beatles, and you

Friday, July 11th, 2014

In retrospect it’s hard to believe, but in 1876 a Western Union memo described the telephone as having no value to the company.  In 1957 Lee de Forest, an inventor with more than 180 patents to his name, proclaimed that a manned mission to the moon would never occur. In 1961 the commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission stated there was virtually no chance satellites in space would be used to augment television, telephone, or radio transmissions in the United States. The following year a successful music producer named Dick Rowe turned down the Beatles, having decided that guitar bands were on the way out.

What’s stunning about this collection of astoundingly wrong prognostications is not that these particular glimpses into the future were so myopic. Rather, it’s that being wrong is such a common thing when trying to anticipate what the future will hold. In each case these errant predictions were made by smart people who were respected in their field. People who were successful by the standards of their industry. Yet they were wrong. Very wrong. Embarrassingly wrong.

What about you?

Admitting we’re wrong is not something that comes easily to most of us. For some it is a virtual impossibility. Yet we are wrong from time to time. Often, in fact.

Generally we like to think of ourselves as being bright, insightful, and reasonably sharp. But that does not in any way make us infallible. So while it is easy to see the human race is fallible when viewed objectively, we rarely see failings in ourselves that lead to incorrect predictions. The self-insulating subjective view provides us with some protection from the ugly truth. We’re wrong – a lot.

If we were as right as we think we are we’d all be making a fortune in the stock market. Our football and baseball fantasy teams would be cleaning up, and Las Vegas would be a private playground for the soon-to-be-rich. But that’s not the way things work. Because we’re wrong more often than we’d like to think. And knowing that hurts, so we ignore the reality in favor of the fantasy.

Living in a delusional fantasyland of our own creation may be ultimately self-defeating, but it’s more comfortable and less challenging thank accepting reality for what it is. So many of us prefer to do just that – we delude ourselves into thinking we’re more on the ball than we really are.

Do you see yourself in this scenario? Where are you? On the right side, the wrong side, or in the zone of realism? In the zone we’re ignorant. We have gaps in our knowledge base. We continue to strive to be better, but know we’ll never get to the point that we know everything about anything. But we try anyway. That’s just the way we are.

You might want to re-read that first paragraph again. This time, keep in mind that each of those people was spectacularly wrong about at least one thing. Yet they were right about plenty of other things. Lots of things. As few of us are universally wrong as we are universally right. But we each have our moments. Even them. Even you.

So be bold, make mistakes and be proud of the lessons you learn in the process. When your crystal ball is fuzzy and the future is less than 20/20, accept it. And when you’re absolutely sure you know what’s going to happen in the future – but you turn out to be wrong – accept that too.

It’s a big world with lots of opportunity for those who seek it out. Remember, Dick Rowe may have become famous for not signing the Beatles, but he learned his lesson well enough to be the guy who went out and signed the Rolling Stones to their first recording contract. One loss, one win. On average he did pretty darned well.

In this sense at least life is a lot like basketball. If you can’t sink every shot, put some effort into learning how to rebound. One way or the other, you’ll stay in the game and make a real contribution to the team.

Go you!

Seoul Plane: Observations on General Aviation in South Korea

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

It’s 80 something degrees with a humidity level to match, probably higher on the airport ramp and I’m already sweltering in a dark suit and tie. If this scene were unfolding in Ohio, I’d be looking out the window of the OSU flight school and finding myself happy to be inside and under the outlet of a powerful air conditioner. The thing is, I’m not in Ohio. I’m 6,700 miles away, standing beside a Cessna 172 on the flight school ramp of Hanseo University in Taean, South Korea (2 hours from Seoul), shaking hands with a Korean flight instructor who I’m pretty sure thinks I’m way more important than I actually am and is quite nervous. It’s hot, it’s humid, and I’m sweating through several layers of formal meeting clothing, but I’m not going to say no to an opportunity to fly a Cessna 172 on the opposite side of the world from where I normally fly. On tap for that hot summer day in 2013? A leisurely 30 minute flight along the Korean coast, returning to the Hanseo airport.









Fast forward to today, and I find myself back once again in what has quickly become my second home for the third time in three years, doing a second stint as a Visiting Professor for Korea Aerospace University‘s International Summer Program. A fantastic opportunity for college students, this year’s program brings together 50+ students from 17 nationalities and 10+ universities for college courses, cultural experiences and behind-the-scenes tours of the Incheon International Airport and Korean Air.

In my time here over the past three years, I’ve quickly developed many relationships with current and future aviation professionals across all levels and parts of the industry. It’s given me a unique view into the aviation world here.

It’s a Small World

In a country where even the farthest reaches of the peninsula are four or five hours by high speed train from Seoul, GA as a hobby is virtually nonexistent, save for a few small flying clubs, including one at the Osan Air Base catering to mainly Americans. Fifteen years ago, there were only two airlines based in Korea: Asiana and Korean Air. Today, the two behemoths have been joined by six Low Cost Carriers, operating mainly 737s and A320s. The US aviation industry seems like a small world at times but South Korea’s makes it look giant in comparison. Friends, classmates and air force service-mates can often end up working for rival companies. This can be both good and bad–a recommendation can get you a good job in a tough market, but it also becomes very easy for sabotage to occur if you mess up. There are two large aviation universities here, Korea Aerospace University and Hanseo University, with a few smaller programs that have started up in the past decade.

Flight Training Challenges

The path to a Korean Private Pilot License is quite different than the one in the USA. A student at a university here typically flies their first solo here in 45-50 hours and only after mastering many of the PTS maneuvers to a PPL standard prior to sign off. In speaking with some instructors, this seems to have a somewhat chilling effect compared to the US, where a first solo can energize and motivate the student. Senior instructors with a military background can sometimes take a very heavy hand in a figurative and literal sense to students who are unable to perform in the cockpit. This would be seen as very inappropriate in the US, but at this point in time there is very little practical or cultural recourse in the aviation system here.

In light of the very real human factors challenges faced by many airlines here, South Korea represents a very unique and fascinating place to explore the aviation world. I look forward to many more visits and continued work here as airplanes take off and land at the airport just outside the classroom window at KAU!

We Don’t Train For That

Monday, July 7th, 2014

The tragic Gulfstream IV accident in Boston has been on my mind lately, partly because I fly that aircraft, but also because the facts of the case are disquieting.

While I’m not interested in speculating about the cause, I don’t mind discussing factual information that the NTSB has already released to the public. And one of the initial details they provided was that the airplane reached takeoff speed but the pilot flying was not able to raise the nose (or “rotate,” in jet parlance).

My first thought after hearing this? “We don’t train for that.” Every scenario covered during initial and recurrent training—whether in the simulator or the classroom—is based on one of two sequences: a malfunction prior to V1, in which case we stop, or a malfunction after V1, in which case we continue the takeoff and deal with the problem in the air. As far as I know, every multi-engine jet is operated the same way.

But nowhere is there any discussion or training on what to do if you reach the takeoff decision speed (V1), elect to continue, reach Vr, and are then unable to make the airplane fly. You’re forced into doing something that years of training has taught you to never do: blow past V1, Vr, V2, and then attempt an abort.

In this case, the airplane reached 165 knots—about 45 knots beyond the takeoff/abort decision speed. To call that uncharted territory would be generous. Meanwhile, thirty tons of metal and fuel is hurtling down the runway at nearly a football field per second.

We just don’t train for it. But maybe we should. Perhaps instead of focusing on simple engine failures we ought to look at the things that are causing accidents and add them to a database of training scenarios which can be enacted in the simulator without prior notice. Of course, this would have to be a no-jeopardy situation for the pilots. This wouldn’t be a test, it would be a learning experience based on real-world situations encountered by pilots flying actual airplanes. In some cases there’s no good solution, but even then I believe there are valuable things to be learned.

In the case of the Gulfstream IV, there have been four fatal accidents since the aircraft went into service more than a quarter of a century ago. As many news publications have noted, that’s not a bad record. But all four have something in common: each occurred on the ground.

  • October 30, 1996: a Gulfstream IV crashed during takeoff after the pilots lose control during a gusting crosswind.
  • February 12, 2012: a Gulfstream IV overran the 2,000 meter long runway at Bukavu-Kamenbe
  • July 13, 2012: a G-IV on a repositioning flight in southern France departs the runway during landing and broke apart after hitting a stand of trees.
  • May 31, 2014: the Gulfstream accident in Boston

In the few years that I’ve been flying this outstanding aircraft, I’ve seen a variety of odd things happen, from preflight brake system anomalies to flaps that wouldn’t deploy when the airplane was cold-soaked to a “main entry door” annunciation at 45,000 feet (believe me, that gets your attention!).

This isn’t to say the G-IV is an unsafe airplane. Far from it. But like most aircraft, it’s a highly complex piece of machinery with tens of thousands of individual parts. All sorts of tribal knowledge comes from instructors and line pilots during recurrent training. With each anomaly related to us in class, I always end up thinking to myself “we should run that scenario in the simulator.”

Cases like United 232, Apollo 13, Air France 447, and US Air 1549 prove time and time again that not every failure is covered by training or checklists. Corporate/charter aviation is already pretty safe… but perhaps we can do even better.