Archive for the ‘Training’ Category

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.

Aviation’s University Education (and Industry) Challenge

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

In the world of  “Higher Education,” I am an anomaly amongst the masses at my university. In the majority of the classes I teach, I’m closer in age to the students in the room than I am to my faculty colleagues. With this reality comes additional responsibilities (namely, modeling good behavior), several challenges (the ever present need to maintain decorum amongst millennial peers who happen to be my students), and many benefits (a different take on the professor/student learning and mentoring relationship, where students may or may not feel comfortable seeking the advice of someone much closer in age comparatively). When amongst my colleagues from other aviation universities, it’s not uncommon for myself and a handful (but growing) of young aviation faculty.

This week, I’ve traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico for a meeting of aviation faculty from universities around the US. Gather a large number of aviation faculty like this group in one room and you’ll notice one thing: the demographics are not much different compared to those I’ve written about at Oshkosh: Predominantly above the age of 50, and white. For many, this is a second career after years spent in the trenches of the military or airline industry. Sadly, it’s not a vacation; we will be spending time in meeting rooms that may or may not have windows that look out on palm trees. During these sessions, many things will occur: professors will present about best practices in the classroom; graduate students will share their successes and failures in research toward their theses and dissertations; everyone will collectively throw up our hands and panic about the new Restricted Air Transport Pilot Certificate & an impending pilot shortage.

As education professionals in a university environment (one far different than what you might find in public K-12 schools), the large majority of us see this opportunity to gather together as one for professional development and the betterment of our efforts to better educate the aviation professionals of the future. Thanks to changes in priorities across many university systems (best evidenced by this comic), we find ourselves ever focused on “research” instead of “teaching.” Instead of learning by doing and discovering new methods of teaching material, a large portion of the meeting will be spent waging a near-constant battle against Death By Powerpoint. Many colleagues have a minimum number of research articles that they must publish each year as part of the justification for tenure or further employment. For many, this comes at a sacrifice of continuing to develop new methods and tools for our classrooms.

Today we took a break from research presentations to throw our hands up and bemoan a lack of cohesion between industry, alphabet groups, and higher education on dealing with the impending potential pilot shortage. For what it’s worth, this concept is something I’ve wanted to address for a very long time, and will likely address in a future blog post. One of the key areas noticed from the meeting? There are very few members here from industry. When I attend industry shows, there are very few attendees from higher education. We need to better improve our collaboration and communication between all groups in the industry. We might be surprised at just how many different stakeholder groups are throwing their collective hands up in frustration for the same issues and might have solutions for one another.

The missing link in simulation

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Several months ago I mused about the how ever-advancing computer technology has led to a marked improvement in simulators for the light GA market. After my post was published, reader Keith Smith alerted me to a corresponding service he had developed called PilotEdge. His company’s mission is to add a level of realism to the general aviation FTD that not even the multi-million dollar Level D boxes have thus far been able to offer.

I was intrigued. What could possible transform an inexpensive Flight Training Device that way? In a word: radios. As Keith said, “People use [simulators] for things they can’t easily do in the airplane because they lack real ATC and real traffic. If you had those elements, an ordinary end-to-end flight would now be beneficial in the sim, because it would more accurately model the workload associated with conducting the flight.”

That’s when it hit me: I’ve been training regularly in a full-motion Level D Gulfstream IV-SP simulator for a few years now, and despite the accuracy with which the cockpit, visuals, and motion are replicated, it’s never been exactly like flying the actual jet. I never spent much time thinking about why. Adding live air traffic control and filling the skies with actual traffic, operated by humans who spoke on the radio would completely revolutionize the experience, because for better or worse, pilots invest tremendous energy and attention on those two elements. We have to listen for our call sign, respond to queries, and interact with other people on a continual basis.

This isn’t about radio skills (although the service would definitely be useful for that purpose), it’s about workload. Keith related the story of a sim pilot who was so busy in the traffic pattern dealing with a Skyhawk ahead of him and a King Air on a three-mile straight-in for another runway that he failed to notice that he only had two green “gear down” lights.

The shower of sparks was impressive — but nothing compared to the look of horror on his face. He was sure he had confirmed the landing gear position. In fact, he heard the gear coming down and felt the vibration, but a badly timed call from the controller asking him to widen out on downwind distracted him and he never finished the checks. His radio work was perfect, but he failed to prioritize the necessary tasks. You couldn’t duplicate that without PilotEdge.

Bringing the workload closer to real world levels reveals chinks in the student’s armor; in fact, it’s exactly what instructors do with their students in real life: give them a heavy workload to see how they deal with the stress.

Imagine running an emergency in the simulator — say, an engine failure or depressurization scenario — and how much better it would be with a controller on the other end of the radio. You declare an emergency, and they start asking you about fuel remaining, souls on board, what are your intentions, do you need assistance, etc. That’s realism. It’s also a great opportunity to learn things a simulator normally never teaches you, like the fact that ignoring ATC is sometimes the best and safest option when you need to fully focus on flying the airplane. Imagine a copilot trying to read a challenge-response checklist to you in one ear while ATC is yammering away in the other.

Instructors using the PilotEdge service have a textual “back channel” to the controllers and can request scenarios like lost comm, a late go-around, poor vectoring, holds, and literally anything else a real controller would throw at you.

How It Works

The goal is 100% fidelity. ATC services are as realistic as PilotEdge can make them. They used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain SOPs for Southern California towers, approach control, and Center sectors. They also familiarize themselves with local airport customs by listening to LiveATC.net. The sim controllers are paid by PilotEdge and use the same phraseology and procedures utilized by FAA-certified ATC specialists.

But “live” ATC is not very realistic if you’re the only one in the sky. So PilotEdge uses what they call “traffic shaping”. Rather than merely hoping for traffic, they coordinate actual pilots with simulators in remote locations to be at the right place at the right time flying a specified route to create that traffic. And they’re on the frequency as well. Listening for your call sign is something you have to do as much or more in the simulator than you’d be doing in real life. You’ll wait for departure, get stepped on during transmissions, and do all the other things that would happen in a real airplane.

PilotEdge’s service area covers Southern California. Some of their traffic is live, while the rest is computer-generated. PilotEdge has 400 drones flying around the area at all times in Echo and Golf airspace, squawking 1200 and not talking to anyone. They’re programmed to fly exactly as real-world “non-participating” targets do. They’re in the VFR practice areas, the Palos Verdes aerobatic area, and so on. They have military aircraft flying at high speed on military training routes, light GA aircraft on multi-hour cross-countries, gliders (again, without a transponder) flying ridge lift off of Warner Springs and around Mojave, etc.

Here’s a three minute overview of the PilotEdge service:

The Genesis

I’d never heard of a service like PilotEdge before, but Keith said they are not the only one providing ATC services for simulators. The difference is, the “other guys” are using voice-recognition software limited to prepackaged scenarios rather than a room full of human controllers who can deal with — and dish out — anything you can dream up.

Keith Smith started with an early internet-based attempt at simulating air traffic control called VATSIM, which began by using text and later went to Voice-Over-IP.

“That’s where the idea came about; I was a controller there for seven years or so. It’s got lots of flaws for commercial use, but it was the genesis. I couldn’t convince other pilots to use VATSIM due to technical difficulty, so I built PilotEdge from the ground up, licensed the radar scope technology, and off we went.

The radio source code is fairly complicated, but beyond that the service is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Technology is not the key. The secret is our operating model: ATC services provided fifteen hours a day, no requirement for scheduling in advance, and it’s just like the real ATC system.

Also, VATSIM strictly prohibits commercial use, whereas we are built for that purpose. Once a fee is charged, a volunteer service like VATSIM gets complicated. Who gets paid and who does not?”

I asked him how the reception has been for PilotEdge. “It’s a tricky question to answer. It depends on the market. Right now we’re sitting at around 400 users and we’ve been there for 3-4 months. We bring some flight schools on, others drop out. The middle of the market has not been strong, but relationships on the upper-end have made up for it. But we’re a small company, only two years old and definitely still a start-up as far as funding goes.”

A PilotEdge air traffic controller working the "virtual" tower cab at Long Beach (LGB) Airport.

A PilotEdge air traffic controller working the “virtual” tower cab at Long Beach (LGB) Airport.

On the light GA side, PilotEdge is about building radio skills and proficiency at a low cost. With the price of flying spiraling upward at an alarming rate, it’s getting too expensive to operate a real airplane just to build mastery of radio communication.

Even so, it’s been hard for PilotEdge to get much traction with the prototypical flight school. These FBOs tend to be run by people who are overworked. Changes to their programs — especially if it’s an FAA-approved Part 141 syllabus — are difficult to make, and the main emphasis for these companies is keeping the leaseback airplanes flying. Likewise, instructors need to build time, so they want to fly, not sit in a simulator.

Keith feels he’ll be most successful with home users and corporate training centers, because all they do is simulation. The center of market is going to be soft because simulation is not as mature there (although that’s starting to change due to the Redbird Effect).

Expansion on the Horizon

Chicago Jet Group recently obtained an STC to put CPDLC (Controller-Pilot Data Link Communication — basically ATC via text) into Falcons and Gulfstreams, and they contacted PilotEdge to help provide training. VATSIM started with text-only, so it’s an easy transition. Keith said anyone who worked with VATSIM would feel right at home.

I wondered if PilotEdge would ever expand their service area beyond SoCal, and he responded by saying that airspace is airspace, but if the need arose, sure. They picked ZLA because there are simple, moderate, and highly complex areas around SoCal. Keeping the service area restricted increases density of traffic and that congestion helps training and realism. Having said that, there is a company looking to provide PilotEdge service for the New York area because they have a commercial contract to fulfill for that region.

The brass ring for a company like PilotEdge is, of course, the major training centers like Simuflite, FSI, and Simcom. Even NASA has shown an interest.

They’re already making some inroads there via a partnership with ProFlight LLC, a Part 142 training facility in Carlsbad, CA. Founder Caleb Taylor has deployed PilotEdge in their simulators and is basing their business model on that service. Their goal is not just recurrent training, but continual training where pilots can come in any time at no cost and use the device, solo. Well, if it’s used solo, there’s no instructor pretending to deliver ATC (badly, in most cases). So, enter PilotEdge.

Additionally, during ground training, where simulators are not generally used until after classroom training is complete, they want to use their $6 million sim as a training aid. Students will jump in the cockpit and practice using all the systems, including the FMS. There, too, ATC has a role. Lastly, students enter the flight training portion of the formal initial or recurrent program and log their sessions with an instructor. But they will be encouraged to follow up with a bunch of solo sessions, again, with PilotEdge.

All Roads Lead to Savannah

The PilotEdge virtual air traffic control center set up at the 2011 Airventure show in Oshkosh.

The PilotEdge virtual air traffic control center set up at the 2011 Airventure show in Oshkosh.

Keith knew that I fly Gulfstreams for a living and mentioned that they’re working with the folks in Savannah as well. Of course, that piqued my curiosity pretty quickly. He said that Gulfstream is using PilotEdge to save on certification costs related to the avionics in the G650. They’re developing the first FMS update for that airplane, and traditionally the human factors certification takes place in the actual jet. That’s expensive. Operating a G650 costs thousands of dollars per hour. PilotEdge allowed them to move that work into a simulator with full FAA blessing.

“We’re a small company nobody’s heard of, but the Gulfstream project got us in the door at FlightSafety. But even then, they were under the impression that it was voice recognition software, a synthetic product using rigid scenarios.”

It’s Not Just for Pilots

PilotEdge can work in reverse, too. Sacramento City College trains controllers before they go to Oklahoma City for formal coursework with the FAA. They setup a lab with simulators and use PilotEdge to get trainees a leg up on the intricacies of keeping a flurry of flying aluminum sequenced and separated.

Keith said they just put together a proposal for the Mexican Navy as well. Again, competitors use voice recognition software, but that technology doesn’t scale easily when the language in question is Spanish rather than English. He said PilotEdge’s pricing is also superior.

Speaking of English, no matter where you go — and I’ve been on virtually every continent — controllers and pilots are supposed to be capable of communicating in English. There’s no other way to ensure a pilot whose native language is Portuguese can talk to a controller in China who’s primary tongue is Mandarin. So a huge aspect of the international training market is dictated by the ICAO Level 6 English requirements. That regulation has teeth to it, and everyone’s struggling to get their people up to speed. Guess who can help with that?

The Bottom Line

I’m frankly a little surprised that nobody’s come up with a service like PilotEdge before Keith Smith and his team made it happen. As previously noted, the requisite technology has been with us for many years. In some ways PilotEdge is almost anachronistic. From manufacturing to fast food, industries are moving toward greater automation and a lower employee count. PilotEdge is doing the exact opposite, supplanting automated ATC simulation with live humans. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’ve had the misfortune to interact with a couple of these computerized programs in the past and always come away wishing I could get the last two hours of my life back.

The combination of a new generation of simulators and PilotEdge’s addition of air traffic and ATC has the potential to vastly improve the way pilots train while simultaneously reducing the cost of obtaining everything from a sport pilot certificate to a turbojet type rating. I can see this powerful duo creating an aviation equivalent of the smartphone explosion and helping turn the tide toward a more prosperous future.

Perhaps evolutionary is revolutionary after all.