Archive for the ‘Training’ Category

Welcome to the Pilot Shortage

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Can you see it? We’re going to talk about it.
Image via http://www.disruptiveleadership.com

For once in the airline world, something has arrived early. This time, however, it’s not-so-good: a long forecasted, sometimes delayed pilot shortage. From the Wall Street Journal to Brett Snyder’s CrankyFlier to BusinessWeek,the news of a significant shortage of qualified applicants to our nation’s regional airlines has captured the attention of the media and business world alike. Great Lakes Airlines has taken the extraordinary step of closing their Minneapolis Essential Air Service base and Republic Airways is parking airplanes. This is an area with which I have spent the past several years immersing myself in heaps of demographic data from the FAA in the form of reports and spreadsheets. With this post, I hope to elaborate on some of the key areas in this conversation all members of the aviation community need to know.

 

 

The Pilot Shortage is not a Myth, Despite What ALPA Leadership Says

Yogi Berra once said that half of the game of baseball was 90% mental. While an offhand mistake, there is a comparison to be made to airline unions: more than half of the game of airline unions is 90% politics and messaging. The Air Line Pilots Association has decided  to stake their political message in press releases and a video message from ALPA President Lee Moak. Within the talking points put forth by the pilot union, there are several key insinuations that represent misinterpretations of the market or outright falsehoods:

  • Regional airline pilots are not leaving the United States en masse to go work for companies like Emirates, Cathay Pacific, or Korean Air. A prospective pilot or even a somewhat-established regional pilot does not meet the very high published minimum hour requirements set forth by these companies which include thousands of hours of flight time and/or time in aircraft of 737/A320 size or larger (Korean Air’s mins; Emirates’ mins). Cathay Pacific isn’t even hiring American pilots at this point in time.
  • By the time a pilot meets the minimum hour requirements to fly for these global carriers, they are likely unwilling to uproot their families and daily life to move to Dubai or deal with a 7-14 day on-off commuting schedule. Is $20,000 enough to make you move you and a family halfway around the world?
  • The number of pilots on furlough by ALPA member carriers is greatly eclipsed by the projected hiring amongst legacy carriers. American alone has publicly announced they will be hiring more than the number of pilots ALPA says are on furlough in the next five years. Pilots on furlough face a difficult decision: start at the bottom of another airline, with a reduction of salary and seniority or wait out a callback from their employer.

These mixed messages by ALPA’s national office fall flat compared to the pointed comments of American Eagle’s ALPA leadership, which stated last week after rejecting a concessionary contract offer from American: “[American Eagle's ALPA organization] will be working with the American Eagle pilots to help them find placement with other airlines. ALPA representatives will ask management for their timetable regarding the liquidation of American Eagle.”

The Demographic Picture Looks Like One of My Paintings: Not Pretty

The 2012 US Civil Airmen Statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration contain several statistics that show things are going to get tougher for pilot supply and the aviation industry as a whole.

  • The average age of an Air Transport Pilot is 49.9 years old, an increase of .1 years from 2011. This is important, as many of the regional airlines began to transition their younger first officers to ATP holders during this time as it became clear that the certificate in some form would be required for FAR Part 121 operations. It is entirely likely the average age would be higher if it weren’t for these preparations.
  • Slightly more than 62,000 of the 149,100 active Air Transport Pilots in the United States fall between the ages of 50 and 64, which places them within 15 years of the FAA mandated retirement age. Some of these pilots will continue flying in other places, but they won’t be flying for the airlines.
  • There are 81,805 Student Pilots between the ages 0f 16-30 in the United States. While an okay number on the surface, there are several problems when reading between the lines. Analysis shows that somewhere in the area of 30-50% of student pilots won’t finish their Private Pilot certificates. The FAA doesn’t currently have a system in place that designates the number of these pilot certificates that are issued to foreign students who come to the country for flight training alone. Using written exam address data, colleagues at the University of North Dakota estimated that up to 40% of new Commercial Pilot certificates issued in the country were going to these pilots who will take their ratings home when training is done.

The Elephants in the Room (Pilot Pay, the New ATP Rules and Training Costs) Need to Be Addressed

Since the dawn of airline outsourcing after deregulation in 1978, the major airlines have pitted contractors and subcontractors against one another in an effort to reduce costs. Parlance calls this a “whipsaw,” where companies that provide some service, be it regional flying, aircraft cleaning or even aircraft maintenance, try to unsustainably underbid one another for an airline contract. The major airlines like this process because it keeps their costs lower. The employees of these contractors and subcontractors face downward pressure on their wages and benefits to the point where the starting salary for a regional airline first officer becomes $20,000 in their first year (less attention has been placed on ground crew as of late, but workers at Delta’s hub in Detroit were recently whipsawed for the fourth time since the airline merged with Northwest. Those workers that have stuck around between the four handling companies have seen their pay drop 50%). This race to the bottom is unsustainable for line employees and the air travel system as a whole. There’s near consensus that $21,000 a year is not acceptable for new airline pilots. At the same time, regional airline boards and CEOs need to be cognizant of the fact that offering their leadership raises in the area of 200% while asking pilots to take a pay cut is a slap in the face and highly unethical.

A student graduating from a university aviation program will do so with approximately 300 hours in their logbook. Thanks to the new ATP qualification rules, they are not able to begin flying for a regional airline until they earn 1000, 1250 or 1500 hours (depending on the program). This means they will spend an extra 1-3 years flight instructing or doing other forms of flying that don’t necessarily prepare them for professional piloting, thereby losing their honed study and professional skills from their degrees. This leads to increased training times once they do get hired at the airlines, and increased costs. Congressional and regulatory relief from the so called “1500 hour rule” is imperative. My proposal: a reduction of the restricted ATP certificate eligibility to college graduates to 500 hours.

Finally, aviation universities need to take a hard look at their training programs for ways to reduce costs for their students. This needs to be done on the micro (internal) and macro levels of aviation education. I cannot speak for individual programs and ways to save costs internally. On the macro level: Why is a new primary trainer from Cessna, Piper or Cirrus $200,000+? What can we do to reduce the cost of fuel & insurance?

Silo No More, Aviation Industry!

The most important takeaway from this situation is the need for the aviation industry as a whole to enter into a collective conversation about pilot and other aviation professional workforce supply. We can no longer afford to silo ourselves as labor, education, management, GA, and manufacturing. If we do not, the fundamental shift that will come won’t be pretty.

Preflight Your Passenger, Too!

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

I know you preflight your airplane before you fly. I know you even preflight your flight, by creating a flight plan of some sort (even if it is sketched on a Post-it or punched into your iPad app for a run around the neighborhood). You think over the length of the runways you intend to use, and, at the very least, ballpark the amount of fuel you have, versus what you need, and weight and balance on your intended aircraft. That’s in the good book, the FAR/AIM, and we all have to do it.

But did you know that preflighting your passengers is also in that book? And why not? According to NTSB data, the best thing that ever happened to passengers who survive aviation accidents worldwide was that passenger safety briefing they heard at the very beginning of the flight. They say, to a man, that in the midst of the chaos of the event they remembered something from that safety briefing, complied, and lived. Simple as that.

Airlines know it. In fact, airlines these days are so sure that the passenger safety briefing is an effective tool that they have handed the task of keeping the briefings interesting enough to grab passenger attention over to marketing. The results are some pretty funny passenger safety briefings—some kitschy enough to garner mention in the New York Times and go viral as YouTube videos.

Now, I’m not saying that you need to hire an ad agency to create a passenger safety briefing that will have your precious cargo chuckling as the buckle up, but, hey, most of us do fly with friends and family, and we do want them to survive any incident or accident that might happen. And if you are one of those pilots who is absolutely positive that an accident could never happen to you? Well, then, consider the passenger safety briefing as a means for getting your passengers to become a helpful part of your crew.

A typical GA aircraft briefing card.

A typical GA aircraft briefing card.

Sure, you could create a pre-fab card, as some companies have done, and just tell them to read it, but extensive data shows that the best safety briefing is a demo. So, show them how to buckle and unbuckle their seatbelt, how to adjust the seats (upright for takeoff and landing for a better egress). Make sure passengers sitting by a door or emergency exit are capable of opening the door (and in the case of a light airplane where doors sometimes pop open in flight, how to close it!). Point out the location of the fire extinguisher and first aid kit, and talk about how to use them, too. Got oxygen onboard? Go over it with your passenger, and mention what hypoxia looks like and feels like. Tell your passenger that you don’t want idle conversation during taxi, takeoff, approach and landing, but that you do want to be notified if they see conflicting air traffic. And make sure they understand and can demonstrate to you how to operate any passenger entertainment system you might carry onboard, so that you won’t be called on to operate it, distracting you from your real mission of flying the airplane.

Finally, vary your script according to the mission. If you are flying overwater, be sure t0 demonstrate the use of personal flotation devices (you’ve got them, right?). Got a raft? Designate a capable passenger to make sure it comes out of the airplane with them, as you’ll be pretty busy. Flying over mountainous terrain? Carry a survival kit, and again, designate a passenger to make sure it gets out of the airplane with you.

As much as we like to think we fly for our own pleasure, many of us, I’d say most of us love sharing the experience with others. You might think that a thorough passenger briefing will frighten a newbie to private flying, but my experience has been just the opposite. My passengers tell me that the briefing is empowering, and that having the information it imparts makes them feel safer, because they know, if there’s a problem, they can contribute to the solution.

 

Three Ways to Start an Instrument Approach: Vectors, IAF and Intermediate Fix (IF)

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

KPAO GPS 31

A friend lamented on Facebook that the NDB procedure at the airport where he learned to fly is no longer available. He added  “For some reason it makes me a little sad.” I’m guessing his sadness had more to do with his feelings about learning to fly at that airport, than it did about flying an NDB approach. Or perhaps he was reminiscing about the pride he felt in mastering the NDB approach.

I used to enjoy the intellectual challenge of flying an NDB approach and the even greater challenge of teaching others to master it. But no more. There are no NDB approaches left in the S.F. Bay area where I teach and I say “good riddance.”

The approaches were inaccurate and difficult to fly and former Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown was killed when U.S. Air Force pilots failed to correctly fly a rare “dual NDB” approach. I’m much prefer to see pilots expend their intellectual horsepower on mastering flying IFR approaches with modern GPS receivers, which can be more work than learning NDB approaches, and staying up to date on rule changes.

One rule change that frequently causes confusion among pilots and controllers alike relates to the third way to fly an instrument approach. All instrument pilots know you can fly an approach with vectors or use pilot navigation to start at an IAF (initial approach fix). However there’s a third way that’s been around since 2006, but word about it has been slow to get out to pilots and even to a few controllers.

Pilots can now start an instrument approach, with some restrictions, by flying directly to the IF (intermediate fix). Just to remind those who may have forgotten, the initial segment of a typical instrument approach procedure starts at an IAF and ends at the IF. So typically the IF is the next fix after the IAF as you fly toward the airport.

You might be wondering, “What’s the big deal, why would I want to skip the IAF.” For many approaches it won’t matter, especially if the IAF is along your direction of travel toward the airport. But for some approaches it can save a few clicks on the Hobbs meter. For example, at my home airport of Palo Alto, Calif., the GPS 31 approach has two IAFs, but both are in the boonies and most pilots start the approach at DOCAL, the IF.

You’ll find the details about starting an approach at an IF in section 5-4-7(i) of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), where it first appeared in 2006 (yes eight years ago!). However, you won’t read about it in the FAA’s Instrument Flying Handbook or even in the FAA Instrument Procedures Handbook, both of which are excellent publications.

The rule applies to all approach types, not just RNAV (GPS) approaches. Here’s the current text from the AIM:

ATC may clear aircraft that have filed an Advanced RNAV equipment suffix to the intermediate fix when clearing aircraft for an instrument approach procedure. ATC will take the following actions when clearing Advanced RNAV aircraft to the intermediate fix:

1. Provide radar monitoring to the intermediate fix.

2. Advise the pilot to expect clearance direct to the intermediate fix at least 5 miles from the fix.

NOTE - This is to allow the pilot to program the RNAV equipment to allow the aircraft to fly to the intermediate fix when cleared by ATC.

3. Assign an altitude to maintain until the intermediate fix.

4. Ensure the aircraft is on a course that will intercept the intermediate segment at an angle not greater than 90 degrees and is at an altitude that will permit normal descent from the intermediate fix to the final approach fix.

Here’s what it means to a typical GA pilot.

1) You need to be GPS equipped (which is the only practical way for most GA aircraft to be RNAV equipped). This let’s you find your way independently to the IF.

2) The controller might advise you that you’ll be starting the approach at the IF, but more typically, you’ll have already requested that of the controller.

3) You’ll be assigned an altitude to maintain until reaching the IF. Most likely you won’t be on a published segment of the approach until the IF, so you need to be assigned a safe altitude.

4) The controller cannot clear you directly to the IF until you’re in a position from which you can make a turn of less than 90 degrees to join the approach at the IF.

It’s the last part, making a turn of less than 90 degrees, where pilot and controller sometimes get confused. The idea is that the turn at the IF needs to be an easy one, much like turning left or right at the intersection of two streets. It can’t be a hairpin turn or resemble something like a U-Turn.

Think of it this way. If you were to draw a line on your chart at the IF that’s perpendicular to the intermediate segment, on one side of the line, the side farthest from the airport, you are allowed to fly directly to the IF, since the turn inbound is less than 90 degrees. If you’re on the other side of the line, the side closer to the airport, you can’t be cleared to the IF until after you’ve been vectored across the perpendicular line.

All of this presents some new challenges for pilots and controllers, especially if they’re unclear on the rule. We’ll talk more about those challenges….next month.

Lighting up the Brain for Aviation

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Male/Female BrainRecently I was having a discussion with a pair of aviation magazine owners and editors. We were talking about how many female pilots have been featured on their magazine’s cover over the years. We reasoned that since the female pilot population is 6-7% of the overall pilot population, that 6-7% of aviation magazine covers should be of women pilots. Yet they certainly weren’t, so we talked about why it seems to be so hard to get girls and young women interested in aviation.

Last year at Oshkosh, I presented a seminar for Build-a-Plane Teacher’s Day on the differences in male and female brains, and how those differences could influence the way students learn about aviation. I thought it might be interesting to touch on some of the highlights of that seminar and perhaps illuminate what I see as some of the challenges of getting females involved in flying.

I will start off by saying that I am not a brain researcher, and this is a basic review of the current science, and is by no means exhaustive. Yet as a practicing psychotherapist for 25 years, I think that I do have some insight in this subject. You should also know that there are exceptions to the facts and we can train our brain to do less than innate activities.

Here is the short story: I versus We:  Competence versus Connection.  The male brain is organized and focused more on him as an individual, striving for mastery.  The female brain is wired for communication, connection and cooperation.

Men have slightly larger brains even when adjusted for their larger heads. They have larger parietal cortices (in charge of space perception), and amygdalas (which regulates sexual and social behavior). This might explain why visual-spatial tasks are easier for men. They tend to be able visually manipulate things in their brain, whereas women tend to need to see spaces and shapes on paper.

Men also have more gray matter in their brains, which is full of active neurons. This might explain why there are more men in physically or mentally active professions like airplane pilots, bush guides, racecar drivers, and mathematicians. Men also tend to be more systematic in their thinking.

Women’s brains are 8-10% smaller than the male brain, yet on average, are much more active. Women have larger volume in both the frontal cortex (the inner CEO) and the limbic cortex (involved in emotional responses). This, in conjunction with speedy connections facilitated by the white matter, is another reason why women’s brains work faster. Renowned brain researcher, Dr. Daniel Amen’s research shows that women have greater activity in the brain’s hippocampus. If you wonder why your wife or girlfriend never forgets anything, here’s your answer: The hippocampus is the part of the brain that helps store memories.

In addition, the female brain has a larger corpus callosum, which is a bundle of nerves that connects emotion and cognition. As a result, women are better with language abilities and rely more heavily on oral or verbal communication. They also tend to have a better time controlling emotions, although they are more emotional. Women, on average use four words to every one word a man uses. The female brain secretes more serotonin and oxytocin, which connects them further to the emotional world.

These differences relate to aviation because when we know what lights up the brain for each gender we can tailor our sales pitch to the crowd. In sum, boys or men will be excited about the individual mastery, competition, or competence in aviation. Girls or women will be excited to be part of a collaborative group of women pilots. Boys or men might be better with conceptualizing basic principles of flight. Girls or women would learn better by hands-on demonstration.

When I display at airport events with the Mooney Ambassador group, we get lots of kids and grown ups in the airplane. I never fail to say to the girls, “have you thought about becoming a pilot? I am and I love it. We need more girl pilots.” You should see their eyes (brain) light up.

Brain Lit!

Brain Lit!

Future Aviatrix

Future Aviatrix

 

Getting 2014 Off to a Flying Start

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014
Sometimes a pilot just needs to be airborne to realign his / her perspective.

Sometimes a pilot just needs to be airborne to realign his / her perspective.

It’s breezy, bright, and marvelously chilly outside. It’s my favorite time of year, and the air makes me want to go fly. Sometimes the pilot in me just needs reminding that the world, when seen from above, is an amazing place. Days like today, especially when they arrive at the first of a new year, can really adjust one’s attitude in a meaningful and lasting way.

I know my airplanes love this weather as much as I do, too. The dry, cool, dense air is better for engines to gulp and burn, and even provides more lift (that stiff breeze on my nose for takeoff doesn’t hurt, either).

But where to, and why? On a perfect VFR winter day in Florida the destination possibilities are many. A 20-minute jaunt north and I can be walking distance from a Venice beach. A 30-minute skip south puts me on the lip of the Everglades National Park and in range of some of the best stone crab in the country. If I need something more exotic or action-packed I can be in Key West or Miami in an hour (less with today’s north wind). As for why – it’s because I need to fly. After all, proficiency is perishable.

For that reason I try and pick venues for my little winter cross countries that can test my skills in a variety of ways. One flight might be to a well-maintained turf runway, or could include a little crosswind practice or short field work. On another I’ll take a safety pilot so I can practice a bit of IFR navigation, steer through some holding patterns and perform an approach or two at the airport before landing there for a tasty lunch at the on field restaurant.

To keep the costs of my winter excursions from cutting into my summer long cross-country funds I often pull the throttle back and lean wisely. That’s especially true when strong winds are concerned. With careful power / mixture management I can easily fly these short routes at 50 % power. It costs me just a little time. I think of it this way: if I’m practicing a holding pattern and an approach as part of the flight I clearly have some time to spare. I also pick my destinations carefully, looking for airports where landing and parking fees are low, or are waived with a small fuel purchase, or if you have a meal at the airport restaurant.

As I write this I hear the throaty rumble of a big Continental engine roaring through a takeoff from the runway that sits not one-half mile away from my office. Hmmm…the day is still young…time to get 2014 off to a flying start. See you out there!

Realistic Expectations: Telling the Truth About Aviation as a Profession

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

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As of this writing, I find myself in the lull between semesters. Grades have been submitted, courses closed out, and my students have all gone to their respective homes until Spring Semester 2014 comes calling in a week. In the life of faculty, there’s lots of catching up to do: on projects that were pushed back, on thank you notes for guest speakers, and (most importantly, to me) sleep. On the day after grades are due, the university releases our Student Evaluations of Instruction, or as we lovingly call them here, SEIs. The SEIs are supposed to give us (and our department chairs) a better idea of where we are in our teaching and courses via the generic 5-point scale we see everywhere (1 equals bad, 5 equals excellent). There is also space for students to leave comments anonymously.

In all reality, the five point scale has very little use to me in the management of my classes. The real part worth diving into is the space for student comments. Students have shared many things in this section…suggestions for exam changes, requests for less work, and even their favorite joke from the semester. One of the more opinionated comments I received this past semester from my Introduction to Aviation class was from a student who self-identified as an Aviation major about the negative light placed on the airline industry by several guest speakers in the class.

The Introduction to Aviation class at OSU is what I like to refer to as our program’s “gateway,” in that it is a prerequisite for further classes, and has also been a very successful “gateway drug” to the aviation field for previously unaware students. Depending on the semester, 50%-60% of the students  in the class are not aviation majors. They sign up as freshmen, exploring the opportunity for a major or a minor or as seniors looking for elective credit that is a bit different than a normal class. The class is my baby, and I do my best to recognize that this could be a make-or-break introduction to the aviation world.

There are segments of the course devoted to history, aerodynamics, pilots licensure, airports and the airlines. The best part of the class (and of being in a program in a major aviation city) is the fact that the university and myself as the teacher have access to a cadre of fantastic aviation professionals from around the US that will take time out of their day to share their experience and wisdom with a class of beginning aviation students. These students bring expectations about the various professions that visit to the table, especially when the professional pilots visit. As part of their visit, I encourage everyone, and especially the regional airline pilots to be as truthful and realistic as possible about their careers, in light of the bad press regional airlines have received (and continue to receive) over the past four years. None of the stories told so far in class have been particularly awful, but each pilot does an excellent job of sharing the struggles of living lives on reserve and with (all considering) very little pay alongside the awesome benefits of a life in the cockpit.

I consider this exposure to the industry for my students to be of utmost importance in helping them set standards and goals for the future. As aviation supporters and professionals, we do our prospective future professionals a disservice by painting the aviation field as excessively rosy or excessively gray. In dealing with our student pilots, we should be sharing our experiences and encouraging the next generation to start building their professional network now. The student mentioned at the outset of the article had a particularly rosy view of the industry as a whole. Unfortunately, as it is for every career, there are downsides that one must be made aware of. Perhaps if we are more forthcoming about the challenges we face, our success rate in things like pilot starts will improve.

Look Up, Look Out!

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013
Asiana 214 in an NTSB diagram of the accident sequence.

Asiana 214 in an NTSB diagram of the accident sequence.

This I know: if you see something with your own two eyes, you can avoid it. Happened to me just this morning. I began a turn off a road I use quite often (that’s important) and nearly encountered a concrete berm the engineers felt was important to add since I’d been there last. Fortunately for me, I was looking outside and forward. And lucky for me the car’s brakes are new. No damage done.

It works the same in an airplane. Even in instrument (IFR) conditions I scan outside the airplane as a cross-check of my instruments, looking for traffic, towering clouds I prefer to fly around and of course, the runway.

I do this even though I fly what the FAA calls a “technically advanced aircraft” (TAA). I’ve got nearly as much information in my cockpit as the Asiana Airlines guys who, despite more than 20,000 hours of experience and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of TAA allowed their B777 to fly into a rock berm at San Francisco International airport last July. After an all-day hearing on December 11, and despite the fact that the NTSB refused to state a cause for the accident (pending even more research) the reason these pilots hit that berm instead of landing is appallingly clear: they relied on their TAA and not on their pilot instincts; instincts borne in the seat of their pants and through interpreting what their eyes were telling them.

After reading a transcript of the cockpit voice recorder I’ll cut the junior first officer a break. He was sitting on the jumpseat, and pointed out the excessive sink rate and deteriorating airspeed to his captains no less than four times in the last three minutes of the flight. His comments were acknowledged, but no changes were made. Hmmm….

How does this pertain to GA flight? Consider it a cautionary tale. If you fly with what I like to call “pretty pictures,” more often known as EFIS, PFDs or MFDs, or even Garmin / iPad GPS moving maps on your lap or clamped to your yoke, please remember this: those are just representations of the world outside. GPS isn’t always reliable. Maps of terrain can be offset slightly (do you test this by occasionally flying directly over an obstacle?), RAIM can fail. I’ve seen the pretty boxes of my virtual glideslope on my EFIS not consider the trees that have grown up and into a runway’s clear zone. And ADS-B or even active traffic systems can’t pick up aircraft without transponders. I know from looking out my windscreen that plenty of traffic opt out. And autopilots, auto-throttles, FADEC and the like? They are only as good as the pilot’s knowledge of their intricacies and fallacies (this is what really bit the Asiana pilots in their collective butt).

Bottom line, my TAA gives me wonderful capabilities, but they are only as good as my complete understanding of how to use them, and when. Above all, I was taught to use my kinesthetic senses and my eyes looking outside the aircraft when I fly, no matter the conditions. Call me old-fashioned, but it works.

Oh, and I listen to my co-pilot when he tells me there might be a problem. Even pinch-hitters (non-pilot co-pilots who fly with you all the time) can perceive issues before they become big problems in flight. They are great traffic and ground-spotters, and they’ll tell you when they think you are fatigued, too. So listen and respond.

Want to know more? Don’t just read the pundits. Look over the raw NTSB records at www.ntsb.gov. There’s plenty for a GA pilot to learn there.

Join an Aircraft Type Club and Save Your Life

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Type Clubs Save LivesAircraft type clubs are General Aviation’s best-kept secret weapon. While there are more than a hundred of them, they fly stealthily below the radar of most pilots, who seem to be blissfully unaware of their existence and benefits. Only a fraction of pilots belong to any of them, yet they offer the best value proposition in aviation: they’re cheap and they could save your life.

No, I’m not talking about AOPA, EAA and the other large industry associations that have hundreds of thousands of members. Type clubs are smaller, usually only a few hundred or a few thousand members, and they play a very different role. While the large organizations champion industry-wide issues, type clubs are dedicated to helping owners and renters of specific aircraft makes and models.

Most type clubs offer a newsletter or magazine and many have a web site loaded with aircraft details. But no two clubs are alike; each seems to have a slightly different emphasis. For example, the Cessna Pilots Association (CPA) is focused heavily on maintenance. Each time I had a maintenance issue with the Cessna T210 I owned ten years ago, I phoned the CPA before seeing my mechanic. Invariably, their experts were able to narrow down the issue so I could point my mechanic to the specific problem that needed fixing. That saved hours of troubleshooting and lots of money.

Some clubs, like the Cirrus Owner and Pilots Association (COPA), have a strong emphasis on pilot training and safety. In addition to a very active online forum in which training and accidents are discussed in detail, they offer training at locations around the world in their weekend Cirrus Pilot Proficiency Programs (CPPP). Half of the weekend is spent in seminars on subjects like avionics and engine operation. The other half is spent in the air with a flight instructor, often factory trained, who specializes in teaching in Cirrus SR20 and SR22 aircraft.

The payoff is that the Cirrus fatal accident rate, which was originally higher than the GA fatal accident rate, has declined steadily in recent years and is now slightly lower than the overall GA fatal accident rate. Not surprisingly, COPA members have far fewer fatal Cirrus accidents than non-COPA members.

According to Rick Beach of COPA, the type club has over 3,700 members representing 2,900 Cirrus tail numbers, which is 55% of the 5,400 aircraft that have been produced. About 3,200 of the clubs members are certificated pilots, which is 40% of the total estimated 8,000 Cirrus pilots (including owners and renters).

Beach says “In the history of the fleet, 25 COPA members were involved in the 103 fatal accidents or 24%. If Cirrus pilots were uniformly likely to be involved, then we would expect 40% to be COPA members.” Not only are COPA members about half as likely to be involved in an accident, active COPA members, those who participated in a BPPP or were active in online forums, are even less likely to have an accident. In the history of the fleet, 11 active COPA members were involved in fatal accidents or 11%, about one quarter of the accident rate for all Cirrus aircraft.

Beach continues “If we just look at the past 36 months, as fatal accident frequency dropped considerably, the results are more emphatic. Of the 36 fatal accidents in the past 36 months, 7 were COPA members (20%) and 3 were active COPA Members (8%) instead of 40%.”

On the flip side, COPA members are more likely to have pulled the Cirrus parachute handle and floated down to safety. “Over the lifetime of the fleet, there have been 38 CAPS [parachute] saves. Of those, 17 involved COPA members or 45%, slightly higher than our guesstimate of the proportion of COPA members in the Cirrus pilot community. In the past 36 months, there have been 16 CAPS saves. Of those, 6 involved COPA members or 38%, almost the same proportion of COPA members in the Cirrus pilot community, and certainly a higher percentage than in fatal accidents.”

Lest you think COPA is unique in its safety results, look at LOBO, the Lancair Owners and Builders Organization. In 2008, the worst accident year in Lancair history, seven crashes resulted in 19 fatalities. In October 2008, LOBO was formed to address the high accident rate. In 2009, there were only four accidents with 7 fatalities and by 2010 there were only two fatalities, the lowest accident rate in ten years. Per their January 2011 newsletter, “since the inception of LOBO, there has only been one serious accident involving a LOBO member.”

Give yourself an early Christmas present: Join the type club for the aircraft you fly most frequently. But don’t just write a check; become an active participant. Whether you own or rent, you’re bound to learn more about the intricacies of that aircraft model. And if your family is lucky, what you learn as a type club member may someday save your life…and possibly their lives too.

Preventing Spoilage: Currency, Proficiency and Winter

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

It’s a dark and stormy Friday as I write, and winter suddenly seems to have shown up, just in time for the holiday flying season in nearly every corner of the northern hemisphere north of the 30th parallel. The result? Shorter days, higher winds and clouds bearing ice and snow challenge any general aviation pilot hoping to fly during the holidays.

The problem isn’t really the weather—there are plenty of flyable days—it’s the proficiency of the pilots (not currency: that’s a FAA term referring to the bare minimum logged time and skills necessary for pilots to legally carry passengers, perform in IFR conditions and fly at night), or rather the lack of proficiency of pilots in winter, when weather limits the amount of decent flying days available for safely brushing up skills before carrying passengers on a flight.

And with today’s plethora of buttons in technologically advanced cockpits proficiency has taken on a whole new meaning. For example, you may be legal to fly IFR in your Garmin Perspective equipped Cirrus, but how long has it been since you practiced the buttonology required to make the airplane navigate when (as happened just last week in Florida) RAIM fails along your route of flight, rendering GPS navigation inaccurate and forcing you back onto airways, navigating with VORs. Or worse, say you suffer an electrical failure that forces you to reduce electrical loads and rethink your routing mid-trip. How long has it been since you thought about the NORDO (no radio) procedures if your VHF communication fails (squawk 7600 for starters) and you need to shoot an IFR approach at your destination? Have you spent time checking the power supply in your handheld radio? Have you tested it to see whether the rubber ducky antenna that comes standard will permit communication from inside your cockpit, and to who? Simply because these emergencies don’t happen often is reason enough to review them all before an IFR flight.

My offseason flying is always augmented with a bit of computer-based simulator time (find a real flight training device, such as a RedBird or Frasca simulator at your flight school to maximize your experience). I run ASA’s OnTop software on my PC out here in the countryside. I set up both round dial and EFIS cockpits to keep the mind limber and go to town practicing circle-to-land approaches with tight minimums, turbulence and random instrument failures—even “ATC” distractions from the other room help out. The challenges are humbling, and generally send me back to refine my checklists and re-read the user manuals on my GPS/Nav and EFIS to remind myself of the myriad of different ways I can program the boxes to either work together or, if one fails, independently.

Finally, I try to fly at least once a month, and definitely in the days before I carry passengers, just to work any little kinks out of my landing technique, particularly in gusty  or crosswind situations. It takes as little as a half-hour of pattern time to polish your touchdowns.

I challenge you to take an experienced CFI with you and test the envelope of your airplane against your own skills on a less-than-perfect flying day. Use a “dead-weight” to simulate how the aircraft will feel with passengers in the rear. The experience will make you more competent and confident, not to mention, proficient. That’ll feel better for you, and your passengers, too.

Flight training on the cheap

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

There’s hardly a day that goes by when I don’t hear somebody, somewhere making the observation that flying is expensive. I can relate. News Flash: It is! Another News Flash: It always was.

Having established the basics, let’s at least consider looking a little deeper into our options for cutting cost and bringing the aviation experience within reach of more people, more effectively. Admittedly, the airplane is an expensive classroom. It’s also a lousy classroom. As a flight instructor I learned long ago, expecting student pilots to absorb new information while hurtling through the sky at one-hundred knots or so, way up high in the air, while the sound of the engine, propeller, and rushing airflow do their best to deafen him (or her), is close to being an exercise in futility. There are few torture chambers that are less conducive to the experience of learning than the cockpit of an aircraft in flight.

So let’s at least consider making the educational experience more rewarding, less frightening, stress-free, and immeasurably less expensive. What’s the best and least expensive flight training tool available to fighter pilots and the general public? You’re sitting on it.

Whether you’re sharing a metal park bench with a loved one, going solo in a Eames lounge chair that sells for thousands of dollars, or a balancing precariously on a folding director’s chair you just fished out of the dumpster next door, the seat you’re filling is arguably the best, the least expensive, and the most readily available flight training aid you’ll find.

It works like this. Sit in the chair as comfortably as you can. Relax. Use your imagination to put your feet on the rudder pedals. Rest one hand on the yoke (or stick, as the case may be), leaving the other free to handle the imaginary throttle, flaps, landing gear, and so on. Now run through the tasks you have to practice.

It may sound foolish, but sitting in that chair and running through a takeoff, steep turn, stall and recovery, turn-around-a-point, forward slip to a landing, or pretty much any other task will make you a better pilot. And it will do it at no cost to you. Well, potentially at the cost of some slight embarrassment if you run through your paces at work while mimicking the sounds of the engine, the gear, or the squeal of the tires when they first touch the ground. Other than that your bench, chair, or oversized garden planter can all serve as a perfectly viable training aid.

Of course you can’t log time spent balancing on the railing while pretending to perform slow-flight or an emergency descent. But you can learn from the experience. You can ingrain the steps to virtually any maneuver or task in your thought process. You can become increasingly familiar with the appropriate configuration of the aircraft, solidify the need to clear the area before initiating a maneuver, and review the completion standards in order to give yourself specific goals to shoot for. In short, you can practice flying with precision without spending a dime. That’s a pretty darned good cost cutter, don’t you think?

Since you’re thinking it, I’ll tell you. Yes, I actually use this method of training myself. I used it as a primary student and I used it throughout my training right up through earning my CFI. Years later when I decided to add a seaplane rating to my tickets, I used it again. I closed the glass doors to my office, sat down, and saved myself a small fortune by running through idle taxi, step taxi, plow taxi, normal takeoffs, rough water takeoffs, glassy water takeoffs, and so on, until I could do them in my sleep.

The only thing that had changed from the time I began using this system as a primary student was that my children were older and more capable of talking back and making fun of the old man by this point. So it wasn’t the least bit unusual to hear the sound of my daughters coming from the living room as I persistently practiced for my impending practical test. “Dad’s really weird,” they’d say. To which I’d chuckle.

Weird? Maybe. But I get to work on maneuvers without writing a check and that’s a pretty good payoff in exchange for the kids finding out I’m a bit odd.

Try it. It works.