Archive for the ‘GA community’ Category

Back to Flying Basics, Aided by a Box

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

Flight training devices can save pilots time and money, if they are just willing to give them a try.

I’ve been teaching people how to fly airplanes for 30 years now, and at this point people tell me I’m pretty good at it. One thing I learned early was that the cockpit environment is a horrible classroom. It’s noisy, full of distractions, occasionally unpredictable and, if the airplane is not tied down with the engine shut off, it is constantly moving through space-time.

This is a challenge to the senses of your typical flight student in the first few lessons of any flight training program. Frankly, any sane human being is scared of it, at first, though few would admit to it.

And while we’re confessing, here’s another little talked-of industry secret: flight instruction is a life-and-death struggle for your typical certificated flight instructor (CFI), who has to keep the airplane from killing anyone, all the while avoiding violating any number of hundreds of FAA regulations. We do this as we simultaneously teach a planned lesson and transfer knowledge to the aforementioned overwhelmed student. Try it sometime. It is harder than it looks.

Ground flight simulation evolved from these realizations. On the ground, in a flight training device, CFIs can better control how any flight lesson is going to play out. Why? Because they hold most of the cards; no sudden ATC amendments to lesson plans, no unexpected flashing alternator-out lights, no tilted, giving up the ghost gyros mid-lesson (unless he chooses that) and no unanticipated airspace restrictions or weather anomalies. Total control. Ah….every teacher I know, no matter of what discipline or age group, will tell you that really does feel good.

The original Link Trainer was created in 1929 out of the need for a safe way to teach new pilots how to fly by sole reference to instruments on the aircraft panel. Ed Link used his knowledge of pumps, valves and bellows (honed building organs in his day-job) to create a flight simulator that responded to the pilot’s controls and gave an accurate reading on the instrument panel. These simulators were little blue plywood boxes with real gyro instruments inside and the reason they moved is because they had to so that those gyros in the instruments would work as they did during true flight. Our national hero, Jimmy Doolittle, was a pioneer of the basic instrument scanning techniques we still use today, and he was one of the first of thousands of pilots to use a Link Trainer, too.

“Please don’t put me in that box,” many a trainee begged. It was a tight fit for the big guys. Dark. Hot. Smelly if the pilot before you perspired heavily or tended toward motion sickness. Claustrophobia isn’t necessarily innate—for a lot of us it was an “earned” malady. No wonder few civilian pilots wanted to use them.

Today we don’t need motion or small, dark boxes to simulate flight. Even companies such as Frasca and Redbird Simulations, which make motion simulators, would agree (they make fixed flight training devices, too). The modern computer programs teaching flight by reference to aircraft panel instruments range from hokey and video game-like, but pictorially effective, to extremely sophisticated flight training devices that are accurate in control feel. And they are affordable, as long as you are not looking for a device on which you can officially log time (those start at $3,000 USD and range up).

Even with the cost of a flight instructor factored in, practice with a basic flight training device can save flight students and wizened old-timers alike time and money. And best of all, flight simulation lessons aren’t dependent on outside weather conditions!

I swear by the efficiency of teaching basic flight by instrument skills and airport instrument approach procedures in flight training devices. That said, I would not tell a pilot to use a flight training device for learning or proficiency without flight instructor supervision. Why? Because bad habits are easy to form and hard to shake. A flight instructor can quietly analyze your instrument scan, flow use and checklist use, and provide you with tips and short-cuts that will make managing the cockpit environment during flight both more efficient and safer.


Perspectives on GA safety

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choosing the Express Lane…using your private aircraft for business

Sunday, September 6th, 2015

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

Ready for business

Ready for business

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

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

Mt. Shasta

Mt. Shasta

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

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

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

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

The End

The End

Networking 101: A Very Necessary Class

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


GA pilots evaluate ADS-B options

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk of the town

Monday, July 27th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can a Mentor Really Help?

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Hard to Be, What You Can’t See: the Art of Being an Example

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

My best friend Cat and I were talking about the state of aviation and G.A. airports the other day. We decided we both were card-carrying members of the Rose-Colored Glasses Society. Wearing rose-colored glasses has its drawbacks. Many times when you think someone will do the right thing, and they don’t. You might believe that a peaceful compromise is apparent, yet the other party digs their heels in further. After our conversation we concluded that we would rather be tremendously optimistic, than the alternative, and thus the Rose-Colored Glasses Society was born.

Optimism It's the best way to see life.

Optimism It’s the best way to see life.

Growing up as the daughter of a school superintendent, I was taught that there were things I could and could not do because I was a Lucas. My father told me that I needed to be an example for the other children. I have to say that this was quite a bit of pressure on a kid, but I never wanted to disappoint my Dad, so I tried very hard to be an example.

Other kids went out partying during high school; I didn’t have my first [and last] sip of beer until our senior party. Others might have ditched school, cheated on exams and tried to take short cuts around hard work. And while I don’t recall a lot of missed classes, and had only the occasional help with trigonometry, what I remember was a lot of hard work and fun. It might not come as a shock, that in my senior year I ran for ASB office, and won the Secretary of Publicity. It was during those early times of organizing a student body, dealing with the administration, and trying to manage school and service that I learned a lot about myself.

Flash forward about a hundred years and as a founder of two grass-roots general aviation service groups I can attest to the fact that being an example for G.A. is sometimes difficult and some times I fail. There are times when managing volunteers feels a little like herding cats. Other times when a reporter is shoving a mic in your face and wanting a comment about an airplane incident that makes news. Or occasions where maybe fog or rain have put the kibosh on an aviation event.

Yet all I really need to do is look around me and I see others who seem to always have a smile on their face and a twinkle in their eye. One that comes to mind is Ed Mandibles from the West-Coast Cub Fly-In [July 10-12] held annually in Lompoc, California [KLPC]. This year marks the 31st Anniversary of what started out as the brainchild of Monty Findley and Bruce Fall, two Lompoc Piper Cub owners who originally wanted a fly-in dedicated to their beloved Piper Cubs closer than the annual event that took place at the Cub factory in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. The West Coast Cub Fly-In has gained in prominence and has become one of the best-attended Piper Cub fly-ins in the nation. The fly-in in Lock Haven took a break for a few years, which makes the West Coast Cub Fly-In the longest running Cub, fly-in in the nation (and probably the world!). Lompoc is kind of a sleepy airport until the 60-70 volunteers swing in to motion. This fly-in is open to all makes and models of airplanes and draws in the community in a big way. During the three days there are all the staples of an airport event, from airplane judging to burger fry and Saturday night’s tri-tip dinner awards and costume contest. This year’s theme is Pirates. As you can imagine, if Ed and his crew were to be pessimistic the event wouldn’t have lasted 30 years. Things happen, insurance rates go up, vendors and venues might change. The key is to remain flexible and childlike in the anticipation of aviation fun and family.

Pirate Cubby at the West-Coast Cub Fly-In

Pirate Cubby at the West-Coast Cub Fly-In

In the next few weeks I will be headed to Oshkosh Wisconsin, and will enjoy AirVenture 2015. I tried to explain the event to a non-aviation friend [yes, I have them]. It is easy to rattle off the airplanes on display, the air-shows, concerts, educational activities, and vendors. It is harder to explain the culture of OSH. I suppose it is a week where we all become card-carrying members of the Rose-Colored Glasses Society. I look forward to seeing old friends, making new ones, drooling over the latest GPS, headset, or airplane.

In summary, I am still trying to make my Dad proud, by being a visible example of exuberant optimism, and by doing my part to help airports remain airports, to inspire the love of flight, and keeping my rose-colored glasses firmly in place while wearing a Mooney pirate costume this Saturday night.



NOTAMs: A Lousy System

Monday, July 6th, 2015

One of the dirty little secrets about general aviation is that you can spend as much time preparing for a flight as you do actually flying. It’s not something we’re keen to talk about when discussing the amazing efficiency of traveling by GA, but sooner or later every pilot discovers that flying isn’t always faster than driving. Sometimes it’s a lot slower.

What got me thinking about this was a series of short-range trips I’ve made recently in the Gulfstream: Los Angeles to Phoenix, San Jose, Las Vegas, Fresno, and so on. You’d think it logical that a shorter flight would mean a more effortless work day – but it ain’t necessarily so. The tasks required for a short flight are exactly the same as those needed for a longer one. Filing a flight plan, generating weight & balance data, checking weather, and pre-flighting the aircraft aren’t appreciably faster for a 500 mile leg than a 5,000 mile one.

In fact, once we takeoff, the “hard” work is mostly done and the more congenial, relaxing portions of the trip begin. This is often true for small very airplanes. One might even say “especially” for small aircraft. A flight in the Pitts, for example, averages about 30 minutes, but I can’t imagine completing pre-flight tasks and getting off the ground in less time, especially when there’s a passenger involved. Just getting someone properly briefed and fitted into their seat and parachute can take a considerable amount of time.

The point is, preflight activities are vital to safety in the skies and we can’t shortcut them. Or can we?

The law — 14 CFR 91.103, specifically — requires pilots to obtain “all available information” about a flight before departure. That’s a pretty broad mandate, especially in the Information Age. But it makes sense, because while aviation may be a relatively safe activity, it’s not terribly forgiving of carelessness.

For a typical flight, “all available information” includes NOTAMs, something I’ve found to be a major time suck. While the Feds have made minor changes to the NOTAM setup in recent years, from my perspective it’s still a truly lousy system. It pains me to say that, because the FAA gets some things very, very right. This isn’t one of them.

As Sen. James Inhofe found out a few years ago, the price of missing a NOTAM can be steep. Bringing these notices into the 21st century would greatly improve flight safety and do so at a relatively low cost. If nothing else, it would encourage more pilots to actually read them! It’s difficult to fault pilots for glossing over data when it looks like this:

!JFK 06/204 JFK RWY 13R/31L SE 3263FT CLSD. RWY 13R TORA 10672FT TODA 10672FT ASDA 10672FT LDA 8629FT. RWY 31L TORA 10924FT TODA 10924FT ASDA 10924FT LDA 11248FT. 1506251331-1509211600

Should flight information look like something off a 1950’s teletype or a badly formatted excerpt of assembly language? I’m tempted to say “if we can put a man on the moon…” – you know how the rest of that goes. But perhaps it would be better to simply ask that, in the midst of spending untold billions on NextGen, a few paltry dollars be allocated to overhauling our ghastly NOTAM system.

I know that building a better mousetrap is possible because I’ve been using one for more than a decade. Dan Checkoway, a longtime friend and fellow pilot, saw the same deficiencies in preflight information delivery. But he did something about it, developing a site called Weathermeister. Among other things, it translates NOTAMs into plain English, adjusts the valid times to a more readable format, and best of all, color codes critical items like runway and airport closures so they stand out.


The difference is dramatic. Not only can I scan NOTAMs far more quickly, but I’m also less likely to overlook something important. On several occasions I’ve been the one to unearth important NOTAMs that a fellow crewmember missed. Does that make me superior aviator? No… just a guy with a better sledgehammer.

Dan once told me that despite the fact that Weathermeister provides full weather briefings, 90% of the site’s coding is dedicated to translating the arcane NOTAM texts into readable English. He once tried to sell the FAA on using his format, but for whatever reason (bureaucratic inertia, perhaps?), nothing has changed in the intervening years.

Nevertheless, hope springs eternal. I keep wishing something or someone would prod the FAA to improve the way NOTAMs are disseminated. Not only would flying be safer, but if time really is money, we’d be a whole lot richer, too.

Notes from Paris: F-WILE Beguiles and Intrigues

Monday, June 29th, 2015

There are a lot of interesting aircraft displayed during the Paris Air Show every two years, but only one LSA caught my eye in 2015: the Airbus E-Fan technology demonstrator, designated experimental F-WILE. You can see it fly at the link here. Take the time to listen to the entire 7.5 minute audio (it’s okay if you don’t speak French, the British announcer repeats the narration in English halfway through). And turn up the sound. Listen. Air

What do you hear? Almost nothing behind the narration, not because they have manipulated the soundtrack. The E-Fan is practically silent. Its two 43 hp ducted fan motors barely hum as they push its all-composite airframe through its high speed and low speed passes at Le Bourget just a couple weeks ago.

The two-seat technology demonstrator proves that electric flight can solve some of Europe’s pressing issues with flight training, and perhaps one day, with commercial flight. The aircraft noise is non-existent, as is its emissions. It is phenomenally efficient, and once equipped with swappable power-pack solutions, it will meet its mission: becoming a viable alternative to expensive-to-run, aging training aircraft.

Beyond the obvious innovations lies the beguiling inner workings of the E-Fan, specifically its cockpit instrumentation. The E-Fan Connected Cockpit brings together advances in glass cockpit instrument technology with new iconology that makes it easier for pilots to interpret the information displayed. The power management, for example, pre-calculates the effect of flight conditions such as altitude, airspeed and terrain profile. The status of available electrical energy is displayed on a removable computer tablet, along with the e-aircraft’s planned flight path, as well as for alternates in the event of in-flight re-routing.

The E-Fan instrument panel is yet one more innovation in the aircraft.

The E-Fan instrument panel is yet one more innovation in the aircraft.

That removable tablet is another key innovation. It serves as the navigation and training display, providing information that supplements the aircraft’s fixed left-hand Primary Flight Display. Pilots can pre-plan the flight away from the aircraft and simply insert the tablet into its place on the panel to upload and interface the flight plan. And after the flight? The computer tablet serves as a highly interactive training device in the classroom, enabling review of the flight in detail. Energy management, flight times and maintenance details can also be reviewed, allowing for easy digital logging of all relevant aircraft conditions. Conceivably, with wifi, the tablet can simply upload all data to the company server as soon as it regains connectivity, on the ramp or in the hangar. Nice.

GA benefits from the E-Fan in more ways than you can imagine. For one, the conglomerate Airbus, one of the three largest aircraft manufacturers in the world, is behind the research and development. The E-Fan did not appear on a napkin at a bar one night out of the slightly soggy brain of some nameless visionary engineer. It is a key component of the E-Thrust concept study, Airbus Group’s on-going hybrid and electrical propulsion system research, which has seen the hybrid concept study for a full-scale helicopter, the successful development of a Cri-Cri ultralight modified as the world’s first four-engine all-electric aerobatic aircraft, the demonstration flights of a hybrid electric motor glider, the flight testing of a short-range mini-unmanned aerial vehicle with an advanced fuel cell as well as the concept study of a hybrid-electric propulsion system for this rotorcraft. That is why the technology took only three years to go from vapor-ware announcement to flying demonstrator. And now that Airbus declared at the Paris Air Show that it will manufacture the aircraft for the training and LSA market, we can expect to see E-Fans ready for purchase before the decade is out.

Who can afford this kind of advanced LSA? Hey, when you are considering a fleet of them, more entities than you’d think. Also, I’d imagine the terms will be generous in the beginning, as Airbus uses these small two-seaters to refine its concepts for upscaling to its commercial aircraft fleet.