Archive for the ‘Training’ Category

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.

Getting it for free: Really?

Monday, October 21st, 2013

How a scholarship can make the difference, and why you should help.

I once interviewed an airline pilot who absolutely did not want anyone to know that a scholarship for a jet type-rating had been the catalyst for that person to reach the right seat on a Boeing. That pilot feared reprisal from the other pilots at work, and for good reason. There were pilots at the airline that were known for hazing those they felt had not “earned” their way to the jet cockpit.

If those hazers had only spent a little time on a scholarship committee with any one of the numerous organizations, including AOPA, that solicit and administrate these aviation scholarships, then they might change their tune. I spent years reading and “grading” applicants for Women in Aviation, International’s scholarships and I can tell you that 90 percent of those who apply, especially at the upper realm (Boeing 737 and Lear 45 type ratings) are prodigiously over-qualified for that which they apply. And 100 percent of those who are awarded said scholarships are not just deserving of them, they typically perform well ahead of their peers in both the classroom and the cockpit. It is too bad the scholarship winners can’t challenge the hazers to a “fly-off.” I think we’d see who the best pilots were, then.

Airlines, by the way, know all this—which is why they offer scholarships. One year, during the awards ceremony for the Women in Aviation, International scholarships, then Chief Pilot at American Airlines Cecil Ewell awarded the four type-rating scholarships that the company had promised, and then called the 10 runners-up onto the stage. He smiled at them, and applauded them for applying for the awards, and told them that they all were over-qualified for positions as pilots at American Airlines. “So,” he said, “I can’t offer you scholarships, because those have already been awarded. I can, however, offer you jobs. Show up Monday, fly your simulator test, and if you pass that you’ll be processed.” That was that. Ten new airline pilots. All qualified or better for their positions. He’d saved his company both time and money by hiring them from their scholarship applications and interviews.

Some people have also quietly bemoaned to me their worries that these scholarship winners don’t appreciate the leg up that they are given in the aviation training world, and don’t advance the way someone who had to pay out of their pocket would. I’d beg to differ there, too, and I’ve got years worth of “Where are they now?” stories that I’ve collected and published to prove it. Scholarship recipients are moving ahead, persevering longer in the profession, even, during economic downturns, perhaps because they might have just a little more in reserve, since they didn’t drain every last penny out of a savings account to obtain their training. Or maybe it is just that they are so determined to make it in aviation. I’m not sure, but I’d bet their success ratio is a heady mix of both, and maybe even a few more reasons. But know this: they succeed in aviation at a rate higher than the general populace.

If we are serious about growing the ranks of aviation and sustaining a vibrant general aviation culture into the next 100 years, we’ve got to pay it forward again and again. There are terrific opportunities for qualified individuals of all walks in life to step into aviation and advance out there. Look them up at www.aopa.org, www.eaa.org, www.nbaa.org, www.wai.org and more. Google “aviation scholarships” and send the results to someone you know with a dream. Then take your place among the ranks of those who want to help.

The Importance of Hitchhikers and Fence Lice

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

A few weeks ago I found myself at the airport on a beautiful Sunday afternoon after helping out at a practice for OSU’s NIFA competition Flight Team. It was one of those days where everything lined up near-perfectly (save for some annoying haze) that it seemed like the universe itself was begging me to fly. All I needed was an excuse, and that justification came from the fact that it had been two weeks since I had last flown, and that was just too close to the 90 day currency limit on our school’s insurance. With that reasoning in mind, I knew it was time to cheat gravity in our school’s Cirrus SR20.

As I finished the paperwork and waited for the plane to be pulled from the hangar, I noticed two students loitering in the school after Flight Team practice. While I cannot confirm nor deny that they loitered closer to the dispatch desk when they heard I was flying, it seemed like a waste  to let seats go empty for what was to be a flight for the sake of fun and currency. Magically, headsets appeared, and release forms were signed.

The flight itself was remarkably uneventful…a few landings at a satellite airport and a landing back at KOSU. The students had the opportunity to see their professor in action (and whiff a landing) and experience the side-stick controls of the SR20. Both are certified pilots who showed the child-like wonder of flight in a new type of airplane. This child-like wonder that is far-too-often lost on harried veterans of the aviation field.

I’ve spent the last several weekends out at the airport for Flight Team practices, where I see that same child-like wonder displayed on the faces of actual children who literally hang onto the airport fence watching our flight operations. Parents bring them to the airport to watch anything and everything from a Cessna 152 to Gulfstream V taxi by.

For many of us in the industry, this is how we got our introduction to the field–attaching ourselves like lice to the goings-on of the airport at the fence, or getting to hop along on a ride in a new airplane once we move to the other side of the fence. For many people I see at airports around the country, these young (and old, as the Fence Lice phenomena knows no age limits) are considered a mild annoyance or are ignored outright. We walk by, as vaunted insiders to the world behind the fence, not stopping to say “hi,” to point out an airplane taxiing by, or to engage those on the “wrong” side of the fence in our super-awesome aviation experience.

I make it a goal when walking from our flight school at KOSU to the FBO along a fence line to, at the very least, say hello and make sure to direct our airport visitors to a dedicated observation tower with a better view of the airport and information about the airport, including coloring books. If I have time, I’ll even offer to bring young visitors and their parents to the other side of the fence for a brief tour of a flight training aircraft.

How many of those kids, if given the chance at an impromptu tour, would return home that day ready to return in 10, 15, or 20 years to join those of us on the “right” side of the fence? It is our responsibility, as current aviators, to pass along the passion for flight to the younger generation. As I’ve written about before, we pilots are, on average, getting significantly older. We should make it our goal to engage these fence-lice and hitchhikers every time we see them at the airport. It represents a long-term investment in our community and our industry.

 

Renewing a flight instructor certificate via FAA Wings Program

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

If you’re not a flight instructor but enjoy sharing your love of flying with others, I heartily encourage you to become a CFI. Not only will you become a better pilot in the process, but you’ll find out how much fun it is helping others to learn to fly.

Unlike other pilot certificates and ratings, a CFI rating must be renewed every two years or it goes away. Given the amount of work required to become a CFI, few people want to lose the rating. So every two years, over 90,000 CFIs renew through a variety of ways.

For CFIs who are not actively teaching, the most common way to renew is through a Flight Instructor Renewal Clinic or FIRC. These are typically weekend-long seminars hosted at hotels around the country on a rotating schedule. AOPA’s Air Safety Foundation’s FIRC is among the most popular. After two days of class, CFIs who attend are renewed for two years. Even non-current pilots can attend. I’m currently working with a lapsed pilot who hadn’t flown for 30 years. However, he still has a current CFI rating, since he attended a FIRC every two years!

Online FIRCs are also now available from multiple vendors. They’re less expensive and you can do them at home without traveling to a hotel. I’ve never used one, though I recently heard a CFI complain about the cumbersome nature of one of these courses.

If you actively teach, there are a variety of ways to renew a CFI rating through your local FAA FSDO office. In the past, I’ve renewed my CFI by bringing a list of five or more pilots that I’ve signed off for a checkride in the prior two years. To qualify by this method, at least 80% of the pilots have to have passed their checkride on the first attempt.

This year, I decided to renew by bringing the FSDO a list of five or more pilots for whom I had signed off a total of at least 15 flight elements in the FAA WINGS program.  This is a great alternative for CFIs who are less active, but still give at least two to three Flight Reviews (previously called a BFR) per year. Instead of signing pilots off for a Flight Review, have them sign up at www.faasafety.gov and take online courses for WINGS credit. Then print the lists of tasks they need to perform in the air, fly with them until they can complete the tasks to FAA checkride standards, and endorse their logbook with the FAA WINGS endorsement found in AC 61-65E. You too will need a faasafety.gov account so you can validate each pilot’s request for WINGS credit.

The first step to renew a CFI rating is to go to IACRA.faa.gov and fill out an online 8710-1 form. Then go to the FSDO with your IACRA FTN number, user name, and password. At the FSDO, the FAA inspector signs on to IACRA to find your online application. Then you sign on to IACRA to submit your 8710-1 form. The FAA inspector signs back on again and processes your application.

Renewing a CFI rating is non-trivial and takes some time. But it beats the alternative of failing to renew and having to take the Flight Instructor checkride again!

News Flash: Stick & Rudder Skills Are Important

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

AVweb’s Glenn Pew interviewed Embry-Riddle professor and former Northwest captain Jack Panosian in a podcast entitled “Avionics — Good Pilots Not Required?”.  It’s an inflammatory title, no doubt to encourage people to dive for that “play” button.  Obviously it worked, because I listened to the whole thing.

Panosian has an impressive resume:  20 years at Northwest, 5 years at ERAU, and he’s got a Juris Doctorate as well.  Nevertheless, while I agreed with some of what he said, certain portions of his thesis seem way off base.

I’ll summarize his points:

    • automation used to monitor human pilots, but today it’s the other way around: we are monitoring the computers these days, and we’re not very good at it
    • computers are good monitors, they do it the same way every time, with the same level of diligence
    • stick & rudder skills are less important than avionics management skill and we need to teach with that in mind

The first two points may be correct (I’ll get to the third one later), but computers don’t “monitor”, they simply execute programming.  There’s a big difference there. It’s true that when people monitor the same thing over and over again, we cannot maintain the same vigilance ad nauseum. But when humans monitor something, they’re capable of doing so with thoughtful and reasoned analysis.  Humans can think outside the box.  They can adapt and prioritize based on what’s actually happening rather than being limited by their programming.

Computers are not capable of that. Remember, system failures are not always covered by the aircraft operating procedures or training, and that’s why safe flight still requires human input and oversight. We are also capable of putting more focus on our monitoring during critical phases of flight. For example, I watch airspeed and flight path with much greater attention during approach than I typically will during cruise.

It’s also worth considering that, despite all the automation, humans still manually perform the takeoff, landing, taxi phases, as well as fly the airplane when the computers get confused or take the day off.   These are the areas where most accidents happen.  Air France 447 stalled up in the flight levels and remained in that state until reaching the ocean.  Colgan 3407 was another stall accident.  Asiana 214 was a visual approach gone wrong. Better manual flying skill might very well have made the difference in at least some of these accidents.

Glenn Pew asked, “How much of flying the airplane is flying the avionics?”, and Panosian replied that “the greatest innovation was the moving map”, giving an example of synthetic vision showing terrain at night.  In my experience, a moving map is no guarantee of situational awareness.  I’ve trained many pilots to fly VFR and IFR in glass panel Cirruses, DiamondStars, experimentals, and so on.  I can’t tell you how many of them had no idea where they were, even with a 10″ full color moving map directly in front of them. When asked the simple question, “Where are we right now?”, you’d be surprised how many have a tough time coming up with an answer.

Does that seem odd to you? It shouldn’t. Situational awareness is not about the map in front of your eyes, it’s about the moving map inside your head.  If you want evidence of that, look at the 2007 CFIT crash of a CAP Flight 2793, a C-182T Skylane which ran into high terrain near Las Vegas.  That flight was piloted by two highly experienced pilots who were familiar with the area, had a G1000 panel in front of them, and still managed to fly into Mt. Potosi.

Panosian made the point that the Airbus was designed to be flown on autopilot “all the time — it was not designed to be flown by hand.  It was designed so that it’s a hassle to be flown by hand”.  Some business jets have similar characteristics. Who would want to hand fly the airplane straight and level for hours on end anyway? The light GA arena has an equivalent as well, the Cirrus SR20 and SR22. I enjoy hand flying them, actually, but the airplane has a somewhat artificial feel due to the springs in the flight control system. It was purposefully designed to fly long distances on autopilot. It’s very good at that mission. It’s well equipped, and has plenty of safety equipment aboard. TAWS, traffic, CAPS, a solid autopilot, good avionics… and yet the Cirrus’s accident rate is not better than average.

I don’t believe the answer is to make the pilot a better manager of automation. This will not stop CFIT, stall/spin, weather, and takeoff or landing accidents.

“The Good news is that we have a generation of pilots that have grown up with this technology, these tablets, etc. and they grab hold of these things better than the older pilot who was trained on the round dials.  That’s a good thing because now you’re just molding them into the aviation world and this is how you’ll operate the aircraft.”

I’m a big proponent of glass panels, tablets, and technology. They’re great. But they do not make one a good pilot. If you want a better pilot, start primary students off in a tailwheel airplane and ensure they know how to fly before doing anything else. Everything should flow out of that. I wouldn’t expect this to be a revolutionary idea, but perhaps it is.

“You are not going to be hired because of your stick and rudder skills.  You will be hired because of your management skills.”

A good aviator needs both sets of skills.  Management ability is important, but no more so than stick-and-rudder capability.  If you can’t physically fly the airplane during any or all phases of flight, you don’t belong in the cockpit because any equipment issues during those phases can leave the aircraft without someone capable of safely operating it.  Pilots who can’t proficiently hand-fly are passengers.  Console operators.  Button pushers.  System monitors (dog not included). But they’re not pilots.

“In other words, can you manage all these systems, can you manages the information you’re getting and make sure that the airplane is doing what it’s supposed to do?  The fact of the matter is that we’ve see this in other industries.  It’s hardly unique to the airline industry.  A robot can do a better job of welding than a human.  An autopilot has many more sensors than a human hand does.  They can be done better and safer than a human being, but they must be monitored properly. That’s where the training comes in.  We have to change from the stick & rudder skills to the manager skills.  That’s what we’re trying to do.”

The problem with his comparison is that flying an airplane is not like welding.  Welding does not require you to manage the energy state of a large chunk of metal hurling through the air while maintaining situational awareness, staying ahead of the aircraft mentally, and adjusting for countless variables ranging from weather to traffic to equipment failures to controllers, often all at the same time and at the end of a long work day. Doing all those things does constitute “management”, but I don’t think it’s the kind Mr. Panosian is referring to.

And as far as the autopilot is concerned, it’s extraordinarily simplistic to compare a full autopilot system to a single human hand.  What about the rest of the body? What about the vestibular labyrinthine system and resultant equilibrioception?  There’s proprioception, thermoception, etc. (Look ‘em up — I had to!). And that’s to say nothing of our sense of sight, hearing, touch, and smell.  We use those when we fly, even without direct knowledge of what our body is doing.  How many times have you noticed a subtle vibration from a prop or engine, the sound of a leaking seal around a door, the sense of something just not being quite right?

Autopilots do some things better than a human. Automation is helpful and absolutely has it’s place. But it is no substitute for a flesh-and-blood pilot who knows how to fly the machine.

What say you, readers?

The automation challenge: A young person’s problem?

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013
Otto Pilot

Image Credit: Screenshot from Airplane!

In the aftermath of Asiana 214 in San Francisco and UPS 1354 in Birmingham (even reaching back to Air France 447 and Colgan 3407), much of the collective conversation, soul searching, and heated argument has revolved around the issue of cockpit automation and pilot interaction with onboard technology. There has been a collective cry from much of the “old guard” in the aviation field saying that these accidents prove that the modern pilot spends too much time monitoring systems and not enough time honing their old-fashioned “stick-and-rudder” skills. A recent blog post from the Economist even went so far as to say:

“Many of today’s younger pilots (especially in the rapidly expanding markets of Asia and the Middle East) have had little opportunity to hone their airmanship in air forces, general aviation or local flying clubs, allowing them to amass long hours of hand-flying various aircraft in all sorts of weather conditions and emergencies.”

Are the recent airline accidents a direct result of a lack of stick-and-rudder skills amongst younger pilots? A look at the demographics of the flight crews tells a different story. The two captains in the left and right seat onboard Asiana 214 were 48 and 45 years old, respectively, and the relief crew was 41 and 52 years old. The captain of the UPS aircraft that went down in Birmingham was 58; the first officer was 37. Air France 447’s crew had the youngest first officer (32 years old) amongst these major “automation interaction” accidents; the captain was 58 and the relief first officer onboard the ill-fated flight was 37. Without getting into the training priorities of each airline and nitty-gritty of procedures relating to hand-flying, it would seem that more of our accident-prone problems today stem not from a lack of stick-and-rudder skills of the millennial first officer, but (to borrow a colloquialism) teaching our old dogs new tricks and displays in the cockpit.

In general aviation, we see this new challenge with the implementation and increased use of technologically advanced aircraft (TAAs) by our pilots. The standard story goes something like this: VFR-rated pilot gets in TAA, encounters marginal weather, potentially thinking he’s safer behind a glass cockpit, becomes disoriented, and crashes. Is this a stick-and-rudder skill problem, or is it indicative of a broader problem that we still have failures in how we train our pilots to make good decisions?

If you want to buy a new airplane today, be it a 172 or SR22, it will be equipped with glass cockpit technology and the automation that comes with it as standard. Our training and testing methodologies have not adapted to meet these new, fantastic technologies, giving pilots the opportunity to learn both stick-and-rudder skills and the systems management/awareness skills to use the automation to its best and safest abilities. It’s been far too long since the FAA in consultation with the industry has taken a look at its requirements and testing methodologies for pilot certificates in this country. The new ATP certification process presents some revamping of testing and subject areas, but we still fail to begin our training by reinforcing both stick-and-rudder and technical skills.

My fellow “younger” pilots (those lacking in stick-and-rudder skills as the Economist blog post suggests) are incredibly comfortable with technology. For many fellow graduates from large universities, we have extensive experience training and learning in TAA. Where do the airlines see challenges in their training of new hire pilots from these big schools? Not in systems management or basic stick-and-rudder skills. The biggest issue with near consistency across airlines whose new hires trained in all-glass fleets is basic instrument competency. Small things like holding, VOR tracking, and setting fixes in the “old-fashioned way” with two VORs make up a large portion of the feedback universities receive.

In the United States, GA will continue to serve as the primary pipeline for tomorrow’s professional pilots. It behooves us all as GA pilots and instructors to emphasize both of these elements in our training and day-to-day flying. We need to continue to explore better methods of training, especially for the “new dogs” that are already used to GPS on their phones and in their cars and those “old dogs” who grew up in a time when LORAN was a common tool for navigating.

Oshkosh 2033: Who will carry the torch?

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Early August, 2033

The 81st EAA AirVenture fly-in and airshow  ended this past week with continued declines in General Aviation participation from peaks in the 1990s and early 2000s. Attendance this year was not expected to break 200,000 and this year’s flight activity of little more than 2000 aircraft during the week was once again to not high enough to qualify the tower as “The World’s Busiest.” Reflecting the continued reality of declining interest in aviation and airshows, EAA once again kept the once-popular North 40 parking area at the airport closed, consolidating all aircraft parking near show center. In spite of separate efforts by EAA, AOPA, and several other aviation organizations, there seemed to be no coherent solution on the part of any of organizations’ leadership as to how to stop the declining interest in airshows and aviation.

Columbus, Ohio

Mid-August 2013

Mention Oshkosh to your non-aviation inclined friends, and you’ll likely get a “B’GOSH!” out of them. Mention Oshkosh to your aviation friends, and you’ll get a starry-eyed look of airplanes, airshows, and the celebration of all things avgeek.

For the first time in 11 years, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to return to the premier general aviation celebration a few weeks ago. A mix of work and pleasure, I spent ten days amongst friends, former classmates, coworkers, students, and random strangers brought together by a common love of flying. My AirVenture experience included airshows, meetings, networking, a fantastic College Mixer organized by EAA, and time spent “working the lines,” reaching out to prospective students, alumni, and the general public in the booth organized for my employer. It was a wonderful and tiring experience and very different to see from a professional lens.

One of the areas of focus in my academic research is in analyzing demographic data for pilots. I spend many hours pouring over FAA spreadsheets, industry analyses, and forecasts. As my time at AirVenture reminded me, there’s a lot of basic demographic analysis that can be done by traveling to Oshkosh and seeing who is in attendance. Who are the typical attendees? In nonscientific terms, it boils down to three words: Old White Guys.

EAA’s 2014 Exhibitor application noted the following specific demographic attendance data as a sales pitch for exhibitors:

84% male

2/3 of attendees over the age of 35

50% of attendees have a household income over $100,000/yr (US average: 20% of households meet this number)

What, in this portrait of current AirVenture attendees, strikes today’s millennial (of which I’m included) as an event they’d want to spend their time attending? As members of aviation organizations such as EAA and AOPA, what are we doing to ensure the future of our orgs? Why aren’t we directing the leaders of these organizations to make meaningful actions at bringing more people into the fray? Why are we allowing the huge disconnect between potential aviation fans of all varieties and organizations that aren’t doing anything meaningful or coherent to bring them into the field?

The narration of a demonstration flight during an afternoon airshow  at this year’s AirVenture really brought home this disconnect. The person explaining the airplane being demonstrated said that the goal behind their product was to “open up the world of aviation” to more individuals. The cost of this opening product? $250,000+. How many millenials have a fraction of that to spend on flying? How many middle-aged people in the US have that kind of money? Does this product really do anything to open the market up to new blood? Probably not.

This is a theme and question I will return back to many times over the course of my blog posts for AOPA: What is the future of aviation?

What will AirVenture be in 20 years after the majority of today’s attendees are unable to travel to Oshkosh? Are the days of 500,000+ attendees and 10,000+ airplanes numbered? Will the above fictionalization of 2033 become true?

Most importantly, who is going to drive all those awesome VW Beetles around?