Archive for the ‘Authors’ Category

Ghosts, GA and Other Oddities Affected by an Airline Pilot Shortage

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Last week I was privileged to attend an aviation conference I’d never been to before: the Regional Airline Association (RAA) Convention, held in St. Louis, Missouri. That’s where I learned that I am a ghost pilot. My ghostly status, and what I plan to do about it, has direct bearing on several phenomena currently effecting smaller airports around the U.S. and the general aviation pilots flying from them. Read on. You may discover you are a ghost, too!

The strange revelation was unveiled during an open discussion between Bryan Bedford, CEO of Republic Airways Holdings, one of the largest regional conglomerates in the U.S.;

Dan Akins, Andrew Von Ah and Bryan Bedford discuss pilot shortages

Dan Akins, Andrew Von Ah and Bryan Bedford discuss pilot shortages during the 2014 RAA Convention

Andrew Von Ah, of the Government Accountability Office; and Dan Akins, a transportation economist with more than 20 years of industry experience.

Let me add some context to the conversation to help set the scene. Eleven of 12 regional airlines can’t find qualified pilots. New rules require airline pilots to have an ATP before they can carry passengers. An ATP requires 1,500 hours total time and special training (there are few exceptions). That has raised the cost and the duration of training for would-be regional pilots by as much as $100,000 over what it used to cost to go through a four-year university program, flight instruct, acquire about 500 hours experience, and finally qualify for an interview at a regional.

Data from the University of North Dakota show that airline track students are dropping out at the rate of 50% by senior year. Interviews by Dr. Kent Lovelace are telling: these kids have done the math and realize that they won’t be on earnings par with their peers (graduating as nurses, software engineers, accountants) for years. And how, exactly, does one service upwards of $100,000 in student loan debt when only bringing home $25,000 each year? Cape Air starting pay, for example, is a cool $15 per duty hour. I made $15 per hour as a flight instructor and charter pilot in 1986.

To cap the immediacy of the problem for the regionals the feds have issued new pilot duty and rest rules that have forced airlines to pad their pilot ranks by about five percent. Bedford can’t find qualified pilots to make that happen, and has, to date, parked 27 airplanes, he stated.

Von Ah cited the recently released study by the GAO that said there was no airline pilot shortage developing (much contested study, I might add). He acknowledged that regionals might be challenged filling pilot slots, but pointed to government calculations that used FAA pilot statistics to determine that there were adequate “pools” of U.S. commercial and airline transport (ATP) rated pilots ready to be tapped by regional airlines for hiring. He suggested these pilots weren’t adequately incentivized.

Bedford scoffed, positing back, “Last year we looked at 2000 and offered jobs to 450 pilots. This year we vetted 1000 and only got 90 we could offer jobs to. It is a quickly diminishing pool.” He went on to point out that he was trying to negotiate a new contract with his airlines’ pilots; one that includes pay raises.

That’s where Akins chimed in, “The idea that we will have a big rush of ghost pilots wanting to be hired by regional carriers? These pilots are doctors and congressmen. They are not getting in line for those jobs!” he sighed, exasperated.

So true! I’m an ATP-rated pilot with thousands of hours in my logbook, including the requisite turbine experience and I’m not the least bit interested in flying right seat for Silver Airways, our new United feeder. My days of flying for $15 per hour are long past.

The discussion, however, was a fascinating window into why airlines have been pulling out of our area this past year, leaving routes under 500 miles for general aviation, including Part 135 charter, to cover. The phenomenon even caused some local companies to ramp up their Part 91 flight departments again. Now I understood the issues that caused American Eagle and Cape Air to bail on my town, and quite a few others.

And my local flight schools? The ones that can handle foreign students are thriving. But they aren’t teaching a lot of younger locals, the guys who used to work their way up to airline flying by flight instructing and flying charters or night freight. The new ATP rule has been like a shot to the ribs for those guys, and they are rethinking career aspirations, just at the moment when airlines are about to need them the most. How ironic.

At the crux of the problem is who will pay for this new, expensive training. It is clear that the young pilots aren’t interested in carrying the student loan debt forward into the first or second decade of their working lives. Who would be?

The idea of paying pilots more for the experience was broached once more, but ultimately the panel concluded that adversity and much lobbying will force Congress to pressure FAA to create more exceptions to the new ATP rules.  I’m skeptical—how about you?

The Life & Times of a Collegiate Flight Team

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014
Many tails. One Goal.

Many tails. One Goal.

Two weeks ago, the air traffic control tower at The Ohio State University Airport logged 6400 operations. On its busiest day, the airport had 1400 operations, and averaged 850 a day, which comfortably put it in the top ten busiest airports in the USA. The takeoffs and landings?
A vast majority of them completed by a number of Cessna 150s and 152s, with a few Maules, Archers and 172s thrown into the mix for good measure.

What was the cause of this drastic increase in traffic? This past week, Ohio State and the OSU Airport played host to the National Intercollegiate Flying Association’s (NIFA) Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference, more affectionately known as SAFECON. During the week, collegiate aviation students from 27 schools around the United States competed in ground and flight events ranging from precision landings to aircraft recognition.

As the faculty advisor for the OSU Flight Team, I have become very aware of the skill, devotion and passion these students have for the world of aviation and flying. Our team (and by extension, the other teams as well) spend much of their limited free time studying, practicing and preparing for the various events that make up a SAFECON competition. There are practices on Saturdays or Sundays and before/after classes as early as 6AM during the week. As a flight student attending one of the competing NIFA schools, joining a Flight Team is a great way to build skills and knowledge both on the ground and in the air. The preflight inspection event, for example, gives competitors 15 minutes to find 50-70 maintenance “bugs” (done and reversed by an A&P) on a general aviation aircraft. These “bugs” can range from the obvious (flat tires, changed registration numbers) to the inconspicuous (a loose inspection panel screw, blocked pitot drain). Practice searching for these discrepancies gives the competitors a new and detailed understanding of aircraft systems and the importance of a thorough preflight.

The Ohio State University Flight Team. Competitors are in the back row and coaches in the front row.

The Ohio State University Flight Team. Competitors are in the back row and coaches in the front row.

Thanks to the coaching and mentorship of current students, alumni and volunteer coaches & judges, students who participate in these events also gain valuable access to a wide network of industry contacts, all of whom could one day provide leads for a step forward in future careers. Both recent and not-so-recent alumni from many schools return during the lead up to competition and the actual competition to volunteer their time and efforts to support the students and their success in various events. After a week of wide ranging weather, this year’s National Champion is a well-deserved Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. No matter the place, students who competed in the events hopefully gained valuable experience that will pay off in their aviation careers!

Stand up, speak out, get noticed

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

I wrote a piece not long ago that extolled the virtues of telling your own story. In a nutshell, I encouraged people to get out and share the reasons aviation is important to them. Nothing beats a first-person account of a noble pursuit. Nothing.

Ah, you want proof. Fair enough. Consider this, then. Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick begins with the sentence, “Call me, Ishmael.” Right. Now I’m paying attention. This Ishmael guy is talking directly to me, so I’ll read on for a bit and see what he has to tell me. That reaction is why I can mention a book that’s over 150 years old, and you immediately know what I’m writing about.

That first sentence could just as easily have been, “The whaler’s name was Ishmael,” but that’s a lousy opening line. If the story started like that you never would have heard of Herman Melville, or Moby Dick, or the great white whale being hunted to the ends of the earth by Captain Ahab.

So I went out on a very short, sturdy limb and suggested aviation enthusiasts should make it a point to go out and tell their own story. Speak and write in the first person. Talk about the luminaries you’ve met, the mentors who helped you get to the next level, and the friends you’ve made along the way. Write about your inspiration and the legends of the industry who lit a fire in your imagination. Tell your story from your perspective and share your passion.

Now that’s a pretty simple message. It’s basic. It’s got punch. Herman Melville would approve, I’m sure. J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Mark Twain would concur, as well.

All those authors have something in common. They wrote and achieved success before the advent of social media. For all it’s benefits, social media also has the disturbing quality of allowing any of us to vent with an immediacy that is counter to our best interests. Great writing involves thinking. And thinking involves time and introspection. Social media abhors those requirements in favor of quick, knee-jerk responses that may very well expose us to the world as…well, jerks.

Take steps, not leaps. More often than not, great leaps are a bad idea. Instead, read. Think. Think some more. Formulate an opinion. Write it down if you think it has merit. Edit it. Consider having someone else look at it. Maybe you could enlist an actual editor if you know one, or your spouse, or your mom. Look at it to see if it really expresses what you want to say. Ask yourself if it’s a positive message you’re sharing or a negative one.

That last sentence is important. We all get cranky from time to time. We lash out. We defend our turf. We attack. But look at that exchange from the perspective of the other person and ask yourself, how effective would that argument be if it was directed at me?

We will all read letters to the editor we disagree with. Each and every one of us will occasionally take offense at something someone else has written, or said, or turned into a movie that does moderately well at the box office, even though the critics pan it and the Academy shows no interest when award season swings into high gear. Before we launch off on a tirade in an attempt to correct the transgression we perceive, ask yourself this – are they telling your story wrong, or are they telling an entirely different story that doesn’t align with yours?

Their story is not your story. My story is not your story. Yours is unique, worthwhile, valuable, and precious. So share it yourself. Tell the world. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you can require someone else, anyone else, to tell your story accurately, in the way you want it to be told. You can’t. Taking even the first step down that road is a guarantee of failure and heartache later on.

With all that in mind, I’ll repeat myself. Read. Think. Think some more. Formulate an opinion. Write it down if you think it has merit. Edit it. Publish.

If you do those few things, in that order, your chances of having a positive result increase dramatically.

Good luck to you. Good luck to us all.

The Hacked Airplane

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

For better or worse, the relentless march of technology means we’re more connected than ever, in more places than ever. For the most part that’s good. We benefit from improving communication, situational awareness, and reduced pilot workload in the cockpit. But there’s a dark side to digital connectivity, and I predict it’s only a matter of time before we start to see it in our airborne lives.

Consider the recent Heartbleed security bug, which exposed countless user’s private data to the open internet. It wasn’t the first bug and it won’t be the last. Since a good pilot is always mindful the potential exigencies of flying, it’s high time we considered how this connectivity might affect our aircraft.

Even if you’re flying an ancient VFR-only steam gauge panel, odds are good you’ve got an Android or iOS device in the cockpit. And that GPS you rely upon? Whether it’s a portable non-TSO’d unit or the latest integrated avionics suite bestowed from on high by the Gods of Glass, your database updates are undoubtedly retrieved from across the internet. Oh, the database itself can be validated through checksums and secured through encryption, but who knows what other payloads might be living on that little SD card when you insert it into the panel.

“Gee, never thought about that”, you say? You’re not alone. Even multi-billion dollar corporations felt well protected right up to the moment that they were caught flat-footed. As British journalist Misha Glenny sagely noted, there are only two types of companies: those that know they’ve been hacked, and those that don’t.

Hackers are notoriously creative, and even if your computer is secure, that doesn’t mean your refrigerator, toilet, car, or toaster is. From the New York Times:

They came in through the Chinese takeout menu.

Unable to breach the computer network at a big oil company, hackers infected with malware the online menu of a Chinese restaurant that was popular with employees. When the workers browsed the menu, they inadvertently downloaded code that gave the attackers a foothold in the business’s vast computer network.

Remember the Target hacking scandal? Hackers obtained more than 40 million credit and debit card numbers from what the company believed to be tightly secured computers. The Times article details how the attackers gained access through Target’s heating and cooling system, and notes that connectivity has transformed everything from thermostats to printers into an open door through which cyber criminals can walk with relative ease.

Popular Mechanics details more than 10 billion devices connected to the internet in an effort to make our lives easier and more efficient, but also warns us that once everything is connected, everything will be open to hacking.

During a two-week long stretch at the end of December and the beginning of January, hackers tapped into smart TVs, at least one refrigerator, and routers to send out spam. That two-week long attack is considered one of the first Internet of Things hacks, and it’s a sign of things to come.

The smart home, for instance, now includes connected thermostats, light bulbs, refrigerators, toasters, and even deadbolt locks. While it’s exciting to be able to unlock your front door remotely to let a friend in, it’s also dangerous: If the lock is connected to the same router your refrigerator uses, and if your refrigerator has lax security, hackers can enter through that weak point and get to everything else on the network—including the lock.

"There's an app for that!".  The Gulfstream interior can be controlled via an iOS device.

“There’s an app for that!”. The Gulfstream interior can be controlled via an iOS device.

We can laugh at the folly of connecting a bidet or deadbolt to the internet, but let’s not imagine we aren’t equally vulnerable. Especially in the corporate/charter world, today’s airplanes often communicate with a variety of satellite and ground sources, providing diagnostic information, flight times, location data, and more. Gulfstream’s Elite cabin allows users to control window shades, temperature, lighting, and more via a wireless connection to iOS devices. In the cockpit, iPads are now standard for aeronautical charts, quick reference handbooks, aircraft and company manuals, and just about everything else that used to be printed on paper. Before certification, the FAA expressed concern about the Gulfstream G280′s susceptibility to digital attack.

But the biggest security hole for the corporate/charter types is probably the on-board wi-fi systems used by passengers in flight. Internet access used to be limited below 10,000 feet, but the FAA’s recent change on that score means it’s only a matter of time before internet access is available at all times in the cabin. And these systems are often comprised of off-the-shelf hardware, with all the attendant flaws and limitations.

Even if it’s not connected to any of the aircraft’s other systems, corporate and charter aircraft typically carry high net-worth individuals, often businessmen who work while enroute. It’s conceivable that a malicious individual could sit in their car on the public side of the airport fence and hack their way into an aircraft’s on-board wi-fi, accessing the sensitive data passengers have on their laptops without detection.

What are the trade secrets and business plans of, say, a Fortune 100 company worth? And what kind of liability would the loss of such information create for the hapless charter company who found themselves on the receiving end of such an attack? I often think about that when I’m sitting at Van Nuys or Teterboro, surrounded by billions of dollars in jet hardware.

Aspen's Connected Panel

Aspen’s Connected Panel

Internet connectivity is rapidly becoming available to even the smallest general aviation aircraft. Even if you’re not flying behind the latest technology from Gulfstream or Dassault, light GA airplanes still sport some cutting-edge stuff. From the Diamond TwinStar‘s Engine Control Units to the electronic ignition systems common in many Experimental aircraft to Aspen’s Connected Panel, a malicious hacker with an aviation background and sufficient talent could conceivably wreak serious havoc.

Mitigating these risks requires the same strategies we apply to every other piece of hardware in our airplanes: forethought, awareness, and a good “Plan B”. If an engine quits, for example, every pilot know how to handle it. Procedures are committed to memory and we back it up with periodic recurrent training. If primary flight instruments are lost in IMC, a smart pilot will be prepared for that eventuality.

As computers become an ever more critical and intertwined part of our flying, we must apply that same logic to our connected devices. Otherwise we risk being caught with our pants down once the gear comes up.

Quest for a TBO-Free Engine

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

“It just makes no sense,” Jimmy told me, the frustration evident in his voice. “It’s unfair. How can they do this?”

Jimmy Tubbs, ECi’s legendary VP of Engineering

Jimmy Tubbs, ECi’s legendary VP of Engineering

I was on the phone with my friend Jimmy Tubbs, the legendary Vice President of Engineering for Engine Components Inc. (ECi) in San Antonio, Texas. ECi began its life in the 1940s as a cylinder electroplating firm and grew to dominate that business. Starting in the mid-1970s and accelerating in the late 1990s—largely under Jimmy’s technical stewardship—the company transformed itself into one of the two major manufacturers of new FAA/PMA engine parts for Continental, Lycoming and Pratt & Whitney engines (along with its rival Superior Air Parts).

By the mid-2000s, ECi had FAA approval to manufacture thousands of different PMA-approved engine parts, including virtually every component of four-cylinder Lycoming 320- and 360-series engines (other than the Lycoming data plate). So the company decided to take the next logical step: building complete engines. ECi’s engine program began modestly with the company offering engines in kit form for the Experimental/Amateur-Built (E-AB) market. They opened an engine-build facility where homebuilders could assemble their own ECi “Lycoming-style” engines under expert guidance and supervision. Then in 2013, with more than 1,600 kit-built engines flying, ECi began delivering fully-built engines to the E-AB market under the “Titan Engines” brand name.

Catch 22, FAA-style

ECi’s Titan Exp experimental engine

A Titan engine for experimental airplanes.
What will it take to get the FAA to certify it?

Jimmy is now working on taking ECi’s Titan engine program to the next level by seeking FAA approval for these engines to be used in certificated aircraft. In theory, this ought to be relatively easy (as FAA certification efforts go) because the Titan engines are nearly identical in design to Lycoming 320 and 360 engines, and almost all the ECi-built parts are already PMA approved for use in Lycoming engines. In practice, nothing involving the FAA is as easy as it looks.

“They told me the FAA couldn’t approve an initial TBO for these engines longer than 1,000 hours,” Jimmy said to me with a sigh. He had just returned from a meeting with representatives from the FAA Aircraft Certification Office and the Engine & Propeller Directorate. “I explained that our engines are virtually identical in all critical design respects to Lycoming engines that have a 2,000-hour TBO, and that every critical part in our engines is PMA approved for use in those 2,000-hour engines.”

“But they said they could only approve a 1,000-hour TBO to begin with,” Jimmy continued, “and would consider incrementally increasing the TBO after the engines had proven themselves in the field. Problem is that nobody is going to buy one of our certified engines if it has only a 1,000-hour TBO, so the engines will never get to prove themselves. It makes no sense, Mike. It’s not reasonable. Not logical. Doesn’t seem fair.”

I certainly understood where Jimmy was coming from. But I also understood where the FAA was coming from.

A brief history of TBO

To quote a 1999 memorandum from the FAA Engine & Propeller Directorate:

The initial models of today’s horizontally opposed piston engines were certified in the late 1940s and 1950s. These engines initially entered service with recommended TBOs of 500 to 750 hours. Over the next 50 years, the designs of these engines have remained largely unchanged but the manufacturers have gradually increased their recommended TBOs for existing engine designs to intervals as long as 2,000 hours. FAA acceptance of these TBO increases was based on successful service, engineering design, and test experience. New engine designs, however, are still introduced with relatively short TBOs, in the range of 600 hours to 1,000 hours.

From the FAA’s perspective, ECi’s Titan engines are new engines, despite the fact that they are virtually clones of engines that have been flying for six decades, have a Lycoming-recommended TBO of 2,000 hours, and routinely make it to 4,000 or 5,000 hours between overhauls.

Is it any wonder we’re still flying behind engine technology designed in the ‘40s and ‘50s? If the FAA won’t grant a competitive TBO to a Lycoming clone, imagine the difficulties that would be faced by a company endeavoring to certify a new-technology engine. Catch 22.

Preparing for an engine test cell endurance run.

Incidentally, there’s a common misconception that engine TBOs are based on the results of endurance testing by the manufacturer. They aren’t. The regulations that govern certification of engines (FAR Part 33) require only that a new engine design be endurance tested for 150 hours in order to earn certification. Granted, the 150-hour endurance test is fairly brutal: About two-thirds of the 150 hours involves operating the engine at full takeoff power with CHT and oil temperature at red-line. (See FAR 33.49 for the gory details.) But once the engine survives its 150-hour endurance test, the FAA considers it good to go.

In essence, the only endurance testing for engine TBO occurs in the field. Whether we realize it or not, those of us who fly behind piston aircraft engines have been pressed into service as involuntary beta testers.

What about a TBO-free engine?

“Jimmy, this might be a bit radical” I said, “but where exactly in FAR Part 33 does it state that a certificated engine has to have a recommended TBO?” (I didn’t know the answer, but I was sure Jimmy had Part 33 committed to memory.)

“Actually, it doesn’t,” Jimmy answered. “The only place TBO is addressed at all is in FAR 33.19, where it says that ‘engine design and construction must minimize the development of an unsafe condition of the engine between overhaul periods.’ But nowhere in Part 33 does it say that any specific overhaul interval must be prescribed.”

“So you’re saying that engine TBO is a matter of tradition rather than a requirement of regulation?”

“I suppose so,” Jimmy admitted.

“Well then how about trying to certify your Titan engines without any TBO?” I suggested. “If you could pull that off, you’d change our world, and help drag piston aircraft engine maintenance kicking and screaming into the 21st century.”

An FAA-inspired roadmap

I pointed out to Jimmy that there was already a precedent for this in FAR Part 23, the portion of the FARs that governs the certification of normal, utility, aerobatic and commuter category airplanes. In essence, Part 23 is to non-transport airplanes what Part 33 is to engines. On the subject of airframe longevity, Part 23 prescribes an approach that struck me as being also appropriate for dealing with engine longevity.

Since 1993, Part 23 has required that an applicant for an airplane Type Certificate must provide the FAA with a longevity evaluation of metallic  wing, empennage and pressurized cabin structures. The applicant has the choice of three alternative methods for performing this evaluation. It’s up to the applicant to choose which of these methods to use:

  • “Safe-Life” —The applicant must define a “safe-life” (usually measured in either hours or cycles) after which the structure must be taken out of service. The safe-life is normally established by torture-testing the structure until it starts to fail, then dividing the time-to-failure by a safety factor (“scatter factor”) that is typically in the range of 3 to 5 to calculate the approved safe-life of the structure. For example, the Beech Baron 58TC wing structure has a life limit (safe-life) of 10,000 hours, after which the aircraft is grounded. This means that Beech probably had to torture-test the wing spar for at least 30,000 hours and demonstrate that it didn’t develop cracks.
  • “Fail-Safe” —The applicant must demonstrate that the structure has sufficient redundancy that it can still meet its ultimate strength requirements even after the complete failure of any one principal structural element. For example, a three-spar wing that can meet all certification requirements with any one of the three spars hacksawed in half would be considered fail-safe and would require no life limitation.
  • “Damage Tolerance” —The applicant must define a repetitive inspection program that can be shown with very high confidence to detect structural damage before catastrophic failure can occur. This inspection program must be incorporated into the Airworthiness Limitations section of the airplane’s Maintenance Manual or Instructions for Continued Airworthiness, and thereby becomes part of the aircraft’s certification basis.

If we were to translate these Part 23 (airplane) concepts to the universe of FAR Part 33 (engines):

  • Safe-life would be the direct analog of TBO; i.e., prescribing a fixed interval between overhauls.
  • Fail-safe would probably be impractical, because an engine that included enough redundancy to meet all certification requirements despite the failure of any principal structural element (e.g., a crankcase half, cylinder head or piston) would almost surely be too heavy.
  • Damage tolerance would be the direct analog of overhauling the engine strictly on-condition (based on a prescribed inspection program) with no fixed life limit. (This is precisely what I have been practicing and preaching for decades.)

How would it work?

SavvyAnalysis chart

Engine monitor data would be uploaded regularly to a central repository for analysis.

Jimmy and I have had several follow-on conversations about this, and he’s starting to draft a detailed proposal for an inspection protocol that we hope might be acceptable to the FAA as a basis of certifying the Titan engines on the basis of damage tolerance and eliminate the need for any recommended TBO. This is still very much a work-in-progress, but here are some of the thoughts we have so far:

  • The engine installation would be required to include a digital engine monitor that records EGTs and CHTs for each cylinder plus various other critical engine parameters (e.g., oil pressure and temperature, fuel flow, RPM). The engine monitor data memory would be required to be dumped on a regular basis and uploaded via the Internet to a central repository prescribed by ECi for analysis. The uploaded data would be scanned automatically by software for evidence of abnormalities like high CHTs, low fuel flow, failing exhaust valves, non-firing spark plugs, improper ignition timing, clogged fuel nozzles, detonation and pre-ignition. The data would also be available online for analysis by mechanics and ECi technical specialists.
  • At each oil-change interval, the following would be required: (1) An oil sample would be taken for spectrographic analysis (SOAP) by a designated laboratory, and a copy of the SOAP reports would be transmitted electronically to ECi; and (2) The oil filter would be cut open for inspection, digital photos of the filter media would be taken, when appropriate the filter media would be sent for scanning electron microscope (SEM) evaluation by a designated laboratory, and the media photos and SEM reports would be transmitted electronically to ECi.
  • At each annual or 100-hour inspection, the following would be required: (1) Each cylinder would undergo a borescope inspection of the valves, cylinder bores and piston crowns using a borescope capable of capturing digital images, and the borescope images would be transmitted electronically to ECi; (2) Each cylinder rocker cover would be removed and digital photographs of the visible valve train components would be transmitted electronically to ECi; (3) The spark plugs would be removed for cleaning/gapping/rotation, and digital photographs of the electrode ends of the spark plugs would be taken and transmitted electronically to ECi; and (4) Each cylinder would undergo a hot compression test and the test results be transmitted electronically to ECi.

The details still need to be ironed out, but you get the drift. If such a protocol were implemented for these engines (and blessed by the FAA), ECi would have the ability to keep very close tabs on the mechanical condition and operating parameters of each its engines—something that no piston aircraft engine manufacturer has ever been able to do before—and provide advice to each individual Titan engine owner about when each individual engine is in need of an overhaul, teardown inspection, cylinder replacement, etc.

Jimmy even thinks that if such a protocol could be implemented and approved, ECi might even be in a position to offer a warranty for these engines far beyond what engine manufacturers and overhaul shops have been able to offer in the past. That would be frosting on the cake.

I’ve got my fingers, toes and eyes crossed that the FAA will go along with this idea of an engine certified on the basis of damage tolerance rather than safe-life. It would be a total game-changer, a long overdue nail in the coffin of the whole misguided notion that fixed-interval TBOs for aircraft engines make sense. And if ECi succeeds in getting its Titan engine certified on the basis of condition monitoring rather than fixed TBO, maybe Continental and Lycoming might jump on the overhaul-on-condition bandwagon. Wouldn’t that be something?

When to switch to VLOC on an ILS or VOR approach?

Monday, May 5th, 2014

VLOC SAC ILS VORHard to believe, but the ubiquitous workhorse IFR GPS receiver, the Garmin 430, was introduced 17 years ago in 1997. With more than 100,000 Garmin 430s and 530s shipped, it still has the largest installed base of any IFR-capable GPS. Yet despite its longevity, pilots are still asking basic questions about it, such as “When should I Load versus Activate?” or “When do I switch to VLOC on an ILS or VOR approach?”

Lest you think any of these questions are trivial, the former question became a full page in my Max Trescott’s GPS and WAAS Instrument Flying Handbook. As for the latter question, there’s finally an official FAA answer and surprisingly, it’s different depending upon whether you’re flying an ILS or a VOR approach.

For a lot of people flying mostly ILSs into the same few airports, the answer may seem simple. They might respond “Well the CDI just switches automatically to VLOC as I’m about to intercept the final approach course.” That is true some of the time, though only for ILS approaches and only if you’ve turned on the ILS CDI Autocapture in the Garmin 430 or 530’s AUX group.

But the automatic switching on an ILS only occurs if you intercept the final approach course between 2 to 15 miles outside the Final Approach Fix (FAF). That’s not a problem for most ILSs, but for a really long one with a large descent of perhaps 5,000 feet or more (e.g. the ILS 31 at Salinas, Calif. or the ILS 32R at Moffett Field, Calif.) the CDI won’t switch automatically as you join the final approach course. In these cases, you’ll need to manually switch it. Of course, you’ll always need to manually switch it for any non-ILS approach that uses a Nav radio, such as Localizer, VOR, VOR/DME, LDA, SDF, and Localizer back course approaches.

How Late Can You Switch?
But when are you required to switch to the Nav radio for primary guidance? Imagine you’re on a checkride and you forget to switch the CDI from GPS to the Nav radio. How far can you proceed along the approach before you fail the checkride because you didn’t switch the CDI to the Nav radio?

The story I heard years ago—but never confirmed so I don’t know if it’s true—was that Garmin and Cessna gave differing guidance on this point, because they were located in different FSDOs and got different guidance from their local FAA regional offices. One said you had to switch the CDI or HSI to the NAV radio as soon as you turned onto the final approach course. The other said that you didn’t have to make the switch until you reached the FAF. Which is correct? Like most things in life, it depends!

The FAA reference for this is AC 90-108, dated March 3, 2011. For an ILS, localizer, LDA, or localizer back course, Section 8. c. says that an RNAV System (e.g. a GPS) cannot be used for “Lateral navigation on LOC-based courses (including LOC Back-course guidance) without reference to raw LOC data.” This means that as soon as you turn onto a localizer or ILS, you need to display course guidance from the Nav radio. On the Garmin 430/530, that means as soon as you turn onto the localizer, you must push the CDI button so VLOC is displayed.

But oddly for a VOR approach, the answer is different. Section 8. b. says that an RNAV System (e.g. a GPS) cannot be used as a “Substitution for the NAVAID (for example, a VOR or NDB) providing lateral guidance for the final approach segment.” The final approach segment always starts at the FAF, which is marked with a Maltese cross. So on a VOR approach, you can fly all the way to the FAF before you need to switch the CDI or HSI to the Nav radio. Fly past the FAF using just the GPS (as I saw a client do a few days ago) and you’ve busted your checkride, and the regulations if you were to do it for real on an IFR flight plan.

How Early Should You Switch?
Waiting until the last possible time to switch the CDI or HSI to the Nav radio rarely makes sense. My guidance to clients is when the controller first begins issuing vectors—meaning you’re no longer using the GPS for primary guidance—switch the CDI or HSI to the Nav radio (unless of course you’re flying a GPS approach). That gives you time to verify that the course is set correctly before you join the approach course.

I saw a great example of why that’s important while teaching last weekend at a Cirrus Pilot Proficiency Program (CPPP) in Concord, Calif. One of the attendees I flew with didn’t switch the HSI to the Nav radio until the moment he turned onto the final approach course for the LDA RWY 19R at KCCR. At that time, I noticed that the HSI’s course pointer was incorrectly set for 191 degrees rather than the 181 degrees required for the approach, but didn’t say anything because I wanted to see if and when he’d catch the error. Had he made the switch earlier, he would have had more time to review his setup and possibly catch this error.

The needle remained centered, though it was pointed 10 degrees away from our heading. As we crossed the FAF, he asked “Now do I turn ten degrees to follow the pink line to the airport?” I was stunned that he came up with that as a possibility, since localizer signals are always beamed out in a straight line with no turns. Clearly he knew there was a problem in the conflicting information he was seeing, but he never considered the possibility that the course was set incorrectly.

The mantra I teach clients is to review “MORSE, Source, Course” as part of their setup for an instrument approach. There’s no need to check the MORSE code ID or to set the CDI Course when flying a GPS approach, but they’re absolutely essential to check and set anytime you’re using the Nav radio.

Why Does the FAA Allow the Switch to Occur Later for a VOR
So why must you switch to the Nav radio as soon as you turn onto an ILS or localizer, but can wait until the FAF to make the switch when flying a VOR approach? Consider an instrument approach with a VOR at the FAF. You might guess that when on the approach outside the VOR, a GPS signal keeps you closer to the centerline than a VOR signal, but that’s only true when you’re more than 6 NM from the VOR. At that point, the GPS is in Terminal mode and full scale CDI deflection is ±1 NM, which matches the ±10° full-scale deflection for a VOR signal at that distance.

Six miles is probably close to the average length of an intermediate segment, so while I have trouble saying these words [choke], the VOR would actually be more precise for navigating the last six miles to the FAF. Yes, a VOR signal scallops around a lot, but usually not much when you’re that close to a VOR.

The real benefit of GPS accuracy when flying a VOR approach occurs when you’re flying the initial segment, almost all of which would be more than 6 NM from a VOR at the FAF. Not only would GPS keep you closer to the centerline, but more scalloping occurs on a VOR signal at that distance.

It’s a little tougher to do the same analysis on an ILS or localizer approach, since the beamwidth of the localizer varies between about 3 to 6°, depending upon the particular installation. Suffice it to say that any approach with a localizer will have a narrower beamwidth, keeping you closer to the centerline, than a VOR approach when at the same distance from the antenna site. Just remember that localizers are more precise, so the FAA wants you to start using the Nav radio as soon as you turn onto one. But VORs are less precise, so you don’t have to switch to the Nav radio until you reach the FAF.

Postscript
After reading this post, a friend emailed suggesting I’d misinterpreted AC 90-108 and came to the wrong conclusion about needing to switch to localizer data as soon as you turn onto the final approach course. I sought clarification from AFS-470 at FAA HQ and they quickly responded confirming that pilots MUST use raw localizer data for primary guidance along the entire localizer. They raised an additional point that a reader also mentioned  in the Comments section. Both pointed out that a pilot can always monitor RNAV (GPS) data as they fly along a localizer. However they cannot use it for primary navigation. The pilot must have raw LOC data displayed on their primary instrumentation and  must use that LOC/VOR data for primary navigation. My thanks to everyone who contributed to this discussion!

From Cheetos® to Gyros: one man’s attempt to engage high school students in aviation business

Friday, May 2nd, 2014
Bob Velker is the Business Liaison & Community Outreach Manager at Chino Airport, CA [KCNO].  As such is he is really an ambassador for the airport and the business park within its boundaries.  He has developed a program for high school students to spend a day learning about industry and career opportunities at the airport.  During my recent tour, he kept repeating that Chino Airport was really a light industrial park, with runways. After my visit, I could see why.

The local high schools receive the benefit of a full-day program for their upper division students including lunch at famous Flo’s Restaurant. The kids get the day away from campus, education about the career vocations offered by an airport, plus a super cool two-week internship possibility.

The syllabus for the day at the airport lists a sampling of the career vocations offered at Chino Airport [as well as many mid-to large airports around the country]

Crew
    • Commercial pilot/co-pilot
    • Operations
    • Instructions
Where opportunity takes flight

Chino Airport…where opportunity takes flight

Maintenance

  • Airframe
  • Engines
  • Detailer
  • Director of Maintenance
  • Logistics

Refurbishment

  • Exterior Paint and Body work
  • Interior Design, Fabric, woodworking, metal working, installation

Air Traffic Control

Computer & Information Technology

Police and Fire Fighting

Ground [Field] Operations

  • Fuel
  • Taxi
  • Support Vehicles
  • Field Markings
  • Taxi/Runway
  • Baggage Handling
  • Food Service
  • Management

Administration

  • Marketing
  • Business
  • Management
  • Finance
  • Customer Service
  • Dispatch

Non-Profits

  • Museums
  • Restoration
  • Historians

During the morning session the students spend time with AeroTrader which has 50 employees in aircraft restoration, repairs, engine re-building, fabrication and machine shop.  They also tour Threshold an FBO that has 60 employees working in charter operations, aircraft maintenance and aircraft management.  Both of these businesses need a mix of vocational and skilled employees.

After lunch at Flo’s the groups go to SCE, a public utilities company with 40 employees. Then on to Mach One Air Charters [8 employees] , DuBois Aviation [20 employees] and ending with the Planes of Fame Air Museum, a non-profit with 35 employees.  Along the way the kids see the tower and ATC system, learn about Young Eagles, and other businesses on field including avionics repair.

At the end of the day, if a student identifies a strong interest in working for one of the employers highlighted in a session they are given the opportunity to participate in a two-week internship.  All of the businesses at Chino, or any airport for that matter, need workers trained through vocational programs or skilled technical programs. Most high schools now offer various tracks to their students to meet those needs.

I think that Bob Velker has struck gold with this idea.  Not only does it get people to the airport other than pilots, it helps to highlight that our airports offer tremendous economic value and are an economic engine for our communities.  The students might be able to “see” themselves in an aviation career other than that of a pilot. Opportunities like this day-long event open young minds to the career possibilities in aviation. As a parent of a teenager myself, I welcome an opportunity for a child to be able to get their head out of the phone, video game, or chip bag, and into the possibilities of a career in aviation.

The end of ice?

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

I don’t know about you, but for me, the rapid buildup of ice on an airplane in flight (next to an engine failure, I suppose), is one of the most attention-getting events in aviation. Like the upcoming ground seen from behind a very slowly turning (and silent) prop blade, the more the ice builds up, the more the mind congers up an invisible brick wall, rapidly getting closer and closer.

A lot of effort over the years has gone into trying to get rid of ice sticking on airplane parts. Early approaches were mechanical, with pneumatically activated leading edge boots, then came weeping wings, heated surfaces and electrostatic systems—all designed to break the bond between the ice and the structural material.

One of the things I mention in the talks that I give around the country about the future of aviation is the extraordinary science and technology breakthroughs that are piling on top of each other to produce the accelerating, exponential change that will reconfigure all aspects of our lives. Out of the innumerable examples of gobsmacking (as the Brits put it) inventions that contribute to this unprecedented shift are a couple new products that point to the possible elimination of the issue of ice in aviation.

LiquiGlideThe first is LiquiGlide, designed by a MIT PhD candidate (he quit school to run the company), which makes surfaces so slick that liquids don’t stick to them. Check out the video on the right. The company suggests that ice on aircraft wings behave the same way as liquid water and therefore will not stick. The presumption is, as I understand it, that the rain is liquid until it hits the surface and then freezes. LiquiGlide advertises aviation anti-icing as one of their industrial applications so it’s likely that commercial applications will be out in the not too distant future.

You can’t get samples of LiquiGlide to try on your airplane, but there’s NeverWet, another hydrophobic coating that advertises anti-icing characteristics that you can try. The video on the left shows a test of coated and uncoated electrical insulators in a freezing rain situation. NeverWet has teamed up with Rust-Oleum to produce a two-part spray product that can be bought at major home improvement stores.

I mention this because AOPA Pilot’s Dave Hirschman told me back in January that he had sprayed this stuff on one wing of his airplane, drove it into an icing environment and watched with pleasure when the uncoated wing acquired ice and the coated one didn’t. Not a scientific study, but it showed that the basic claims appear to be true. Both companies say that their coatings are very durable and only if it is scratched is the underlying surface vulnerable to ice. Interesting stuff.

If you happen to be in the Phoenix area and would like to hear a very wide-ranging review of new things that will revolutionize flying, I’m giving a keynote presentation in the near future in Phoenix opening the Aviation Insurance Association annual meeting on May 5. If you’re there, come by and say hi.

Lindbergh and Embry-Riddle Team up on Electric Flight

Monday, April 28th, 2014

That is, Lindbergh and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) are teaming up to research and develop electric light aircraft if the FAA will come around on its recent proposal to practically exclude electric powered aircraft completely from the general aviation experience (see report from AOPA by clicking here) in the U.S. It’s an odd restriction, given the push for more sustainable and affordable propulsion technologies going on in general aviation around the world.

Need proof? Take a look at the excellent reporting on the recent Aero Friedrichshafen air show, held annually in Friedrichshafen, Germany. If you want to see aircraft teetering on the bleeding edge of alternative energy propulsion, that is the place to go.

Lindbergh flies the E-Spyder

Erik Lindbergh, grandson of Charles and Ann Morrow Lindbergh, tapped into that energy years ago because it dovetailed nicely with the green emphasis of his family’s foundation, the Lindbergh Foundation. Yet, his Powering Imagination initiative takes a new step.

“It is critical to create a sustainable future for aviation,” he said, announcing the new program. “Emissions and noise are issues that are causing increasing restrictions on aviation around the world. Solving these challenges will ensure that future generations can share our dreams of flight.”

ERAU’s Professor Pat Anderson, Director of the Eagle Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle and his students have been working on green flight for years in their Green Flight Program, so the new alliance is a natural for them. They’ve had experience with both a Swiftfuel powered Piper and an electric and solar powered Stemme.

The students and faculty at the ERAU Daytona Beach, Florida campus plan to swap the piston-engine in a Diamond HK36 motorglider to electric power and test it in noise-sensitive areas to demonstrate the potential benefits of electric or hybrid-electric propulsion for significantly reducing noise. The aircraft, which they expect will fly in mid-2015, will also be used for testing new components of electric engines under real-world flight conditions. This airborne test lab will enable more efficient R&D on electric power systems.

In 2016 Lindbergh plans to follow in the footsteps of his grandparents, Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, by retracing their 1931 adventure across the United States, Canada, Siberia, Japan, and China, covering 8,000 nautical miles in a modern floatplane powered by alternative fuels.

It’s a wonderful plan, but first we need to make sure that electric powered and hybrid powered aircraft can do more than just be flying testbeds in the U.S.!

Coming soon to a television near you…

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

In a land that counts television as the great communicator, is there room for a network devoted to aviation? Maybe, maybe not. The answer is probably largely up to you, the viewer. Or more accurately the combined viewership of that magical box that continues to grow wider, larger, thinner, and higher-resolution, even as the available programming becomes increasingly niche oriented.

Today we have a channel for everything, it seems. We’ve got channels about food. There are channels devoted to travel. We’ve got science fiction channels, game show channels, military channels, cartoon channels, and news channels to beat the band. Oh yes, we’ve got music channels, too. Kids channels, movie channels, religious channels, shopping channels, gay channels, independent programming channels, even C-SPAN, perhaps the most important and most snore inducing channel to ever come down the pike. But you know what we don’t have? We don’t have a dedicated aviation channel.

I’m not talking about the occasional aeronautically themed programming, like what we might catch on Speed, or the History Channel, or the Blowing Stuff Up During WWII channel. I mean a channel that’s all about aviation and aerospace. Can you imagine the potential? Can you imagine the challenges?

Whew, what a workload.

Television may look easy, but it’s not. Putting a program on the air is a Herculean task. Building an entire network designed to host programming that fits a specific niche in the market is even harder. There are people working on just those challenges, though. Good people. Smart, dedicated, highly-experienced people who have big dreams, mind-bogglingly extensive spreadsheets, and sizzle reels that make you scratch your head and say out loud, “Why isn’t this on my cable line-up right now?”

Allow me to introduce you to two very ambitious projects. One is an aviation themed television program in the development stage. The other is a fledgling aerospace network that’s looking for a home.

AirFare America came across my plate last year at SUN ‘n FUN. An enthusiastic woman who is the embodiment of effervescence took the time to settle down long enough to show me a clip, walk me through the concept, and thoroughly whet my appetite for a program about the edible delights we find at airports from one corner of the continent to the next. Better than the food are the people they discover. Andrea Vernot’s vision caught my eye, my imagination, and my heart. Who doesn’t love a $100 hamburger now and then? Especially if it comes with a great story on the side. Andrea and her partner got that same idea, built on it, shot some stellar video, and are now in the process of making things happen.

Check out a sample of what they’re trying to bring to your living room screen at: http://www.airfareamerica.net/

As if bringing a new program to the tube isn’t hard enough, Phillip Hurst, late of the Golf Channel, has banded together with a stellar group of aviation brainiacs, astronauts, aerobatic wizards, and filmmakers to launch a concept called Air & Space Television. Focusing on sport, adventure, and lifestyle, the men and women behind Air & Space Television hope to forge a new connection with the broader population. They’re not looking to simply entice pilots and hard-core enthusiasts to watch television on the drab days when the ceilings are too low to launch off on a fun flight. They’re working on a plan that will reach out and grab the casual observer, the daydreaming teenager, the bored housewife (or househusband), the adventure junkie looking for a new outlet, and the family that wants to experience something new and exciting vicariously through the lens of a photographer and crew who get up-close and personal with scenes that would scare the bejeezus out of a rational ground-pounder.

Catch up with the Air & Space Television plan at: http://www.airandspace.tv/

The challenges are many, as you can imagine. But it’s a good sign that they’re out there, Andrea and Phillip and their peers. As long as visionaries with imaginations and a talent from telling a story are among us, there is an excellent chance that aviation will thrive for another century, and then another after that. This activity of flight used to be introduced to little boys who lay in the grass watching clouds drift by. It’s expanded its reach now, accepted an ever more diversified body of participants, and still calls out for new converts – albeit in new and exciting ways that can reach each of us right there in our homes. If only all the pieces would fall together.

It gives me hope to know they’re out there, working toward the day when their dream comes to fruition. To a day when anyone in American can snap on their television and surf right up to a channel that will show everything from a Mercury capsule launching into space, an episode of Black Sheep Squadron, the latest happenings on the International Space Station, or maybe even a piece on how the restaurant at your favorite airport restaurant prepares their signature dish.

This could be a great way to spend a rainy, cold weekend in the future. If only…if only…I wish them all the success in the world.