Archive for the ‘Training’ 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.


ATC and pilots: When to keep your mouth shut and when to speak up

Monday, September 21st, 2015

This sounds a bit pathetic, but most of the professional pilots I’ve known in my life have been smart alecks, me included … always ready with an opinion, whether anyone asked for it or not. We’re all control freaks to some degree I suppose, not an earth-shattering revelation of course, because those are the kind of people you want around when it’s time to grab the controls and say, “I’ve got it.”

Sometimes knowing when not to grab the microphone in the cockpit though, can be just as important, especially for me when it comes to ATC at least. I spent a decade of my aviation life in a control tower and behind a radar scope, which was just enough to qualify me – by my standards of course – as an expert.


Madison Wi (MSN)

Case in point to grabbing that microphone occurred at Madison, Wis., a few weeks ago with a student in the Cirrus. We were VFR in right traffic for Runway 31 and requesting multiple “option approaches,” the ones that leave it to us to decide whether we’ll make a full stop, stop and go, low approach, or whatever might be left. The long runway, 18-36, was closed for construction and some itinerant traffic was using Runway 3-21. BTW, tower assigned us Runway 31 which I did wonder about with traffic on Runway 3, but then since every controller runs their traffic patterns a little differently I thought no more about it.

After the third or fourth option approach, the tower cleared us to land on Runway 31, but never explained why. On touch down, I simply forgot and told the student “let’s go” and he added full power and reduced the flap setting. As soon as we broke ground the “cleared to land” part flashed in my mind. Maybe 100 feet in the air, the local controller in MSN tower firmly reminds me that when he says cleared to land, he means cleared to land. I really tried not to respond, but of course I did, “Sorry about that. My fault. But 18/36 is closed right?” as in, so what was the real problem other than my failure to follow orders. I honestly didn’t know. Someone in the tower keyed the mic as if they were going to say something and then decided against it. We landed about 15 minutes later and the ground controller reminded me that I had earlier been cleared to land on Runway 31 and that they really need me to follow instructions in the future. Of course you know I keyed the microphone and asked again what the issue was other than blowing the order … “Did I conflict with some other aircraft?” “No, but you were cleared to land, not for an option,” he said. Since the other pilot was becoming uncomfortable with the exchange I just said, “Roger. Thanks,” and let it go. After all, I did blow it. I just would have liked to have known a bit more, but I decided to just let it go.


Kenosha Wi. (ENW)

Jump ahead a month or so and I’m again acting as CFI in the traffic pattern at Kenosha, Wis., this time having watched the other pilot I’m flying with land out of a really nicely handled circling instrument approach. We decide to stay in the VFR traffic pattern for a bit so the controller in the tower – obviously working both tower and ground himself – taxies us to Runway 7 Left. As we taxi, I hear him chatting with a Citabria pilot he’s sending to Runway 7 Right. About now I became occupied watching my pilot prepare for another takeoff.

Some part of my brain must have heard the tower clear the Citabria for takeoff from the right runway with a left turn out, just before he cleared us from the left runway, but it remained one of those distant notes in my brain until we were about 200 feet in the air. That’s when I saw the taildragger cutting across our path from the right. I instinctively told the pilot I was flying with to head right behind the Citabria as the ENW controller mentioned him as “traffic ahead and to our right.” He was a lot more than that. If we hadn’t turned, it would have been close.

The pilot flying with me looked at me in wonderment as I just shook my head and keyed the microphone … “nice tower.” No response.

I rang the tower manager a few days later on the phone because I wanted him to know how close I thought we would have been had we not banked right after takeoff. I told him I thought the ENW tower controller just plum forgot about the taildragger off the right when he cleared us for takeoff. I got it. It happens. I just wanted to see if I’d missed something here too.

Sad to say but the tower manager at Kenosha never rang back. This is where it becomes tough for me. Should I ring the tower manager again and risk sounding like a know-it-all? I make mistakes too. What do you think? Let me know at

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.

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.

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.

Advancing an Aviation Education … The Hard Way

Monday, May 25th, 2015
Cessna 150

Cessna 150

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cessna 150 flap switch


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

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

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

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

Those Lousy Checklists

Friday, May 1st, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When to get some Dual on the couch: mental and emotional health needs of pilots

Monday, April 6th, 2015
Take a breath, take an honest look

Take a breath, take an honest look

Recently I suffered three unexpected losses. I use the word suffered on purpose here. In December I needed to get a flight review. I had scheduled this with three instructors, but due to the holidays, I was unable to get it done. In early January I contacted a local CFI that I know only socially. He knew about the losses in my life. After talking with me a few moments, he gently suggested that I was not well enough emotionally to fly that day. Of course, I burst into tears because he was number four on my list of instructors.

After I got done crying about it, I got to thinking about how, as a professional psychotherapist, I was seemingly unable to see the state of my own mental health. Below is an excerpt of an article I wrote for AOPA Pilot as well as a link for online screening tools for depression, anxiety, bi-polar and PTSD.

Here are some simple ways to put you and your emotional health on the pre-flight checklist as well as some ideas on when to get support if needed.

Mood: Think back over the past week. Rate your mood on a 1 to 5 scale with 1 being the lowest, and 5 being a happy mood. What is your average? Has anyone told you that you look tired, depressed, or nervous? Sometimes our spouse or families are the greatest mirrors for us. We might not see our mood, but to them it is written all over our faces.

Sleep: Have you been sleeping well? The average person in a lab setting will sleep a 6-7 hour stretch and take a 1-2 hour nap in the afternoon. Think back and check whether you have had any difficulties falling or staying asleep. Our deep restorative delta sleep typically happens well into an uninterrupted sleep cycle. Think about performing a go-round on every approach, with sleep we simply cannot get down to delta if the cycle is continually disrupted.

Energy: Has your get up and go, got up and went? Do you find yourself drinking coffee or energy drinks just to get through the day? Some pilots find they have too much energy and are unable to relax into a healthy focus. Between the tortoise and the hare, somewhere in the middle of the two is the most efficient.

Anxiety and Worry: Someone once told me that worry is interest on a debt we don’t yet owe. An interesting study on worry shows that it can be healthy in small doses. Worry is a high brain function, one that can help us sort through possibilities and strategies. Too much worry shuts down the function and we can find ourselves in a lower brain: fight, flight, or freeze. 30 minutes of worry once per week is effective. How many minutes this week have you racked up?

Concentration/Focus: Particularly important in being pilot-in command [PIC] is the ability to concentrate and stay focused. If you are noticing that your mind is wandering or you are distracted by worry, it might be best to keep yourself and the aircraft on the ground.

Sex Drive: This might seem a strange item to have on your personal checklist, but the fact is a person’s sex drive can be indicative of emotional health. A lack of desire can be suggestive of a mood problem.

Appetite: Does your favorite food taste good to you? Are you eating for comfort or to excess? Healthy food is fuel for the brain and the body. Make sure that you do not fly without fuel on board.

Bumper Sticker: Ask yourself this question and pay attention to the answer: If you had to summarize your attitude about life to fit on a bumper sticker, what would yours say? Is your bumper sticker upbeat and optimistic, or doubtful and negative?

Below is a link for the Mental Health America online screening tools. These screening tools are for use with adults only. If your screening indicates a problem, it is best to contact a licensed mental health counselor in your community for follow-up.

A few days after my crying spell, I completed my flight review and had a great time doing it. My instructor had not flown in a Mooney for some time, and after the necessary maneuvers, I was able to show him a lot about my airplane.

Me and Dad, Christmas Eve

James and Jolie Lucas

One of my losses was the death of my father who was a primary flight instructor in the Army Air Corp and a Mooney pilot for 30 plus years. The day I was to leave for his memorial I was checking and double-checking the weather. I thought to myself, “I wonder if I am okay to fly?” That was the only question I needed to ask. If you wonder if you are okay, you are not okay. I packed up the car and made the five-hour drive with my son. While an hour and a half in the air is quicker, for me, that day, the drive was safer.

Our mental health is equally important as our physical health. We are all subject to the same rules of stress and loss. I am happy that CFI #3 told me he didn’t think I should be flying. His insight could have saved us from a bad outcome. I believe we all do need to have eyes and ears on our fellow pilots. We are a small community and we all get to do something that we love to do. Let’s all make sure we are up to the task emotionally too. Thanks for listening.


When the Answer is No

Monday, March 30th, 2015

I did not go flying last weekend despite the gorgeous weather. Not even last week. It was not for want to do so. It was because I flunked a test.

What test can a pilot at my experience level flunk that could ground me? The FAA’s IMSAFE test, that’s what. The pithy mnemonic stands for:
Illness – Is the pilot suffering from any illness or symptom of an illness which might affect them in flight,
Medication – Is the pilot currently taking any drugs (prescription or over-the-counter),
Stress – Psychological or emotional factors which might affect the pilot’s performance,
Alcohol – What has the pilot consumed within the last 8 to 24 hours,
Fatigue – Has the pilot had sufficient sleep and rest in the recent past, and
Eating – Is the pilot sufficiently nourished?

It seems like a simple test that every pilot can perform, but it only works when we are honest about it (NTSB accident reports reveal that is sometimes not the case).

When I ran the test last week item #1 doomed me. I had a nasty case of the common cold. At first it was a tickle in my throat, then a burning in my ears that carried through each swallow. And then I woke up and I simply could not breathe through my nose, my chest ached and felt like I’d been left for dead by the side of the road. No fever. Just malaise. Ugh.

I had two “really want to go” flying trips and two that were flexible last week. I considered medication. I even went online to’s Online Medications database  and looked up the many possible medications that I might take to relieve my symptoms without risking the wrath of the FAA coming down upon me.

The database is extensive (although its disclaimer is quick to tell you it is neither guaranteed nor complete), and pinging it for “cures” to the common cold gave me a few ideas, even as it warned me off a few, too. For instance, who knew that heavily advertised Zyrtec is limited to two (2) weekly doses and a 48-hour waiting period post-dosing before flying? That was useless to me: the drug only works for 24 hours at a time. Nyquil was out, too, requiring a 60-hour wait before flight. The old standby Sudafed was in there, but not so easy to get (it sits behind the pharmacist’s counter these days).

In the end I stuck it out with Vick’s VapoRub, vitamin C and chicken soup. I succumbed to Nyquil a couple of nights, too, just to catch some healing winks.

Oh, and I did not fly, at least until the weekend, when I was beginning to feel better. I tested the air by asking my regular co-pilot to be PIC for me on a short, low-altitude journey. The leg out went fine, but the leg back? As we began to descend back to our home field I heard a crackling, and then one ear went muted.  It “hung” at 1,000 feet agl, even as my pilot deftly touched wheels to grass at home. The pressure hurt. Experiment results? Failure. I was not ready to be PIC, in fact I should not have gone up at all, even as a passenger.

One dose of decongestant brought the ear back to sea level and no permanent harm was done. My co-pilot turned-PIC flew off a couple of hours later to cover for me at my last obligation of the week. Sorry guys.

As I type this I am breathing easy and free again without medication, and I’m ready to give flight another try. This time, however, there is no doubt in my mind—IMSAFE today. Are you?

Improving Your Stick and Rudder Skills: Seaplanes and Taildraggers

Monday, March 23rd, 2015
UPRT Photo

APS Training photo

In mid-January, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released some cold, hard facts. “Between 2001 and 2011, over 40 percent of fixed wing general aviation fatal accidents occurred because pilots lost control of their airplanes.” You might be surprised to learn that when The Boeing Company studied commercial jet accidents around the world between 2004 and 2013, the cause that resulted in more fatalities than any other – by a 2 to 1 margin actually – was Loss of Control Inflight (LOC-I). What we don’t know of course is why this keeps happening?

While the relationship between LOC-I precursors and actual loss of control is still being investigated, it’s clear that pilots of all categories are, at times, simply unable to fly their airplanes out of situations in which they find themselves. Cockpit automation has often been pegged as a likely culprit. Today, we’re going to do our part to slow the advance of LOC-I by turning off all the cockpit automation and hand-flying the airplane more often. Two ways I learned to be more closely tied to my airplane was to check out in a taildragger and earn my seaplane rating. Both require all hands on the controls from the moment you turn over the engine until shutdown. While flying both can be challenging at times, I’ve found the skills they build have truly made me a better pilot and instructor.

Dragging My Tail

I learned to fly a 7ECA Citabria many years ago after I bought it. I thought it was just an airplane with the steering wheel on the wrong end – although it used a control stick and not a wheel. Wrong again. For starters, the view out the cockpit window was different from the tricycle gear aircraft I’d flown Taildraggerbecause the taildragger’s nose sits high on the ground. That makes taxiing … interesting. Lots of rudder and brakes to turn the aircraft, or even keep it heading straight, especially when a strong breeze starts blowing. My first few hours with an instructor produced a great logbook entry … “N8300V 1.5 of crash and dash,” he wrote. I was mortified. After all, I already held a commercial pilot certificate. I’d pour the coals to it on takeoff and of course, with P-factor, torque and everything else, the Champ would head to the left side of the runway. Then I’d kick right rudder which brought us back toward centerline. Unfortunately, I waited until the nose began heading to the right edge of the runway to kick in left rudder and hence many zig-zag takeoffs were started and stopped. The key turned out to be calm days of partial power on takeoff, just enough so I could raise the tail and learn to steer before I pulled the throttle back and taxied back for another try.

It took me awhile to realize I needed to lead the nose around rather than allowing it to lead me. But of course during takeoff, the airplane is also trying to accelerate and I couldn’t see much over the nose. I also learned to raise the tail once there was enough airflow. But you have to do that gently or you’ll put the airplane on it’s nose. You might remember something in ground school called gyroscopic effect … well maybe not. Point is, when the tail comes up, that movement also makes the nose want to swing so you really need to be on the rudders there too … positively, but gently. During my first landings, all seemed normal until I realized this was simply a reverse crash and dash … keep on the rudders to keep the nose straight. Add a crosswind and it becomes a tad challenging until the tail comes back down.

Worst case scenario in my Champ was the inability of the airplane to turn downwind after landing in a 25-knot headwind. Too much brake and power and I could feel I’d put the thing on its nose. The solution turned out to be impossibly simple. Shut the engine down, get out and lift the tail myself to turn the airplane around. Then I restarted and moved it to my tiedown. While all of this sounds tough, after 10 hours or so, I was no longer zig zagging. I used my rudders often and cross winds no longer seemed to bother me as much. I’d become not only coordinated, but finely tuned.

seaplaneSplish Splash

Last fall I realized I craved a new learning challenge. That evolved into earning my seaplane rating in Traverse City, Michigan. The first hour in that Cub on floats reminded me of a few things from my days as a taildraggers student. When the pitch and power of the instructor’s voice is high and loud, danger is near. I also realized the airplane started moving the minute the propeller spun up and of course, there are no brakes. Like the Champ, the Cub had a control stick which I thought made aileron and elevator movements easier to plan and water rudders for improved steering on the surface. I just needed to remember to retract them before takeoff and landing. The seaplane rating is all about learning to taxi, takeoff and land on the water. The rest is like any other airplane, except that when the instructor pulled the engine on me at 1,000 feet AGL, those floats acted like barn doors that pegged the vertical speed indicator pretty fast. On takeoff, it’s all about finding a place on the water called, “the step.” It’s a spot where you have just enough forward pressure on the stick to raise the back of the floats out of the water, but not so much that you put the airplane on its nose. Like the taildragger, it was all about learning to fine tune my movements. I learned this piece of fine tuning the hard way however.

On takeoff, I shoved the stick forward in the Cub like I did to raise the tail in the Champ. WRONG! I learned that fine tuning means too much forward pressure on the stick and the floats bog down in the water. After a few takeoffs, I absolutely began to feel it. Too little back pressure on takeoff and we just mush along in the water like a boat. Finding the takeoff sweet spot meant power, a bit of forward pressure and after about three or four seconds, the airplane accelerated … no it actually jumped ahead. Then I had to finely oscillate the stick to keep the floats in the same place until liftoff speed. Then a bit of back pressure and I was climbing just like a regular bird. By the second hour or so of instruction I thought figured it out. My silent instructor in the back seat confirmed it. There is of course the issue of docking the airplane to contend with too, but I’m still working on that part.

The point of convincing you to give a taildragger or a seaplane rating a try is of course, both are fun. But both also require the pilot to control the aircraft very precisely at times. The first few hours will be real work, but after that you’ll be surprised at how much better you’ll fly these and any other airplane. BTW, when you see AOPA President Mark Baker at AirVenture this year, tell him you’re thinking about a seaplane rating. He has more great seaplane stories than any half dozen other pilots I know.