Archive for the ‘Trends and analysis’ Category

The Day After the Holiday: Flying Home Safely

Monday, November 30th, 2015

The day before a holiday, given there are blue skies, is a silly, noisy day in the airpark. People are on the move. My pilot neighbors who have decided to fly to family are loading up and heading out, sometimes en masse, wisely using their aircraft to avoid what can be dangerously packed highways of travelers, and miserably packed commercial airline flights.

Funny, I don’t worry so much about them on the day they leave out of here. The day after the holiday, though, I admit to fretting a little. Why? Statistics.

Weather is the great delineator on the flight home after a holiday.

Weather is the great delineator on the flight home after a holiday.

It is much easier to decide to stay home for the holidays when you are still in your driveway, contemplating the weather, than it

is to imagine staying on at Aunt Fran’s or Grandma’s, where you may be packed into an expensive hotel room, or maybe the basement spare bedroom (probably no wifi down there, either). The NTSB annals are full of accidents and incidents that happen on the backside of the holiday curve, when people are saturated with food, family, good times, and sometimes rushing to get back for work, school or other ordinary pressures. Suddenly pilots everywhere feel that pinch at the base of the neck and catch themselves almost universally thinking, “Well, maybe the weather isn’t really that bad. Maybe the ice won’t be there, maybe the thunderstorms will drift off the route… and maybe the winds aren’t as strong as they are forecasting.”

That is the essence of get-home-itis, and there is not a one of us immune to it. Pilots can, however, allow common sense to sit on the other shoulder and balance such musings. For every “maybe the forecast is off,” one has to imagine “yeah, it could be turn out worse than what they are saying.” After all, a forecast is only a guess of how the weather gods will play out the day. A sophisticated guess based on lots of data, but a guess, nevertheless.

For every “I have got to get home and be at work tomorrow,” there has to be, “this is what personal days and telecommuting are made for.” Building a weather day or two into holiday vacations can alleviate all of these ruminations. I do it as a matter of course. The plus is that if I get home the day I expected to get home I have a day to decompress before ordinary life reaches out and grabs me again. And if I need the extra day because home or en route weather is bad? Well, I’ve got it.

Another good hedge is a back up plan, such as refundable airline tickets (yep, pricey, but only if you need to use them), or a car rental that you can cancel last minute. I’ve used them both to get where I needed to be when the weather prevented me from flying myself.

And what about the “look-see” approach to flying on marginal or worse weather days? 14 CFR Part 91 leaves pilots a lot of leeway on planning flights when the weather might not be at minimums upon reaching the destination. I’m pragmatic on this one. If you are a current pilot in a well-equipped aircraft who has lots of experience with the type of weather you’d like to “look-see” well, run it through your common sense rubric. If it passes, plan the flight with several “outs,” places you’ll divert to if needed. The go ahead and give the flight a try. Weather is a dynamic beast, and conditions may be better than forecast, or worse. You’ll know when you are up there, hopefully deviating around it or diverting to avoid it. Good luck.

Ultimately the key to short circuiting the day-after get-home-itis syndrome in aviation is proper planning, preparation, and of course, a realistic understanding of your aircraft and your own capabilities. Pilots, know thyself. Fly safe out there!

Why I fly high

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

I take a lot of long trips in my Cessna T310R, and more than half of them involve cruising up in the high teens and low Flight Levels, simply because those are the altitudes at which my airplane is happiest, fastest, and most efficient. But from what I’ve been able to tell, the great majority of piston pilots shy away from using the high-altitude capabilities of their airplanes. Most pilots of normally aspirated airplanes seem to confine most of their flying to altitudes of 10,000’ and below, and even many pilots of unpressurized turbocharged airplanes like mine have never flown in the Flight Levels. It’s even surprising how many pilots of pressurized birds seem averse to flying much above the low teens.

That’s a shame, because it’s at the high end of the altitude spectrum that most of our airplanes achieve their best efficiency—and in many cases, their best speed as well. I’m not just talking about turbocharged airplanes. Most normally-aspirated birds are perfectly capable of cruise altitudes well into the teens.

Look at a plain-vanilla, fixed-gear, normally-aspirated Cessna Skylane:

Cessna 182Q Range Profile

Cessna 182Q Skylane range profile page from POH.

At a low altitude like 4,000’, maximum cruise speed is 139 KTAS at 75% power. Continue climbing until the airplane “runs out of throttle” at 8,000’ and max cruise climbs to 144 KTAS. That extra 5 knots will save you 9 minutes on an 800 NM trip when you take the extra climb into account. (5:38 instead of 5:47, no big deal).

Continue climbing to 12,000’ and max cruise drops back to 139 KTAS (same as at 4,000’), but at a much more fuel-efficient 64% power (which is all you can get at that altitude with wide-open throttle). The same 800 NM trip will take 6 more minutes at 12,000’ than at 4,000’ (5:53 to be exact) because of the longer climb, but burn a whopping 12 gallons less fuel in the process—if avgas costs $5/gallon, that’s $60—and increase IFR range by a full hour and 130 NM!

How far can we take this? Don a cannula and climb to 16,000’—high enough to fly right over the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains IFR—and max cruise drops to a still-respectable 130 KTAS at a miserly 53% power. Because it takes a Skylane nearly 40 minutes to climb from sea level to 16,000’ at max gross, the 800 NM trip will take a half-hour longer than at 12,000’ (6:23), but will save 20 gallons ($100?) and increase IFR range by a full two hours compared to our 4,000’ benchmark.


To fly an
800 NM Trip

4,000 139 K 820 NM 5:47 78 gal
8,000 144 K 840 NM 5:38 79 gal
12,000 139 K 950 NM 5:53 67 gal
16,000 130 K 1,040 NM 6:23 59 gal

Normally-aspirated, fixed-gear 182Q
(maximum gross weight, standard day, no wind,
88 gallons, 45 min reserve)

Unless you just happen to like low-and-slow, there’s no logical reason to cruise a Skylane lower than 8,000’ because doing so makes all the numbers worse: cruise speed, trip time, and range.  On the other hand, climbing to 10,000’ or 12,000’ will cost you a negligible amount of time, and reward you with substantially lower fuel burn and increased range.

These calculations are all based on zero-wind, but in real life the winds aloft are often a decisive factor in determining the best altitude to choose. If you’re headed eastbound, odds are you’ll have a tailwind—and the higher you fly, the better it’ll be.

In wintertime, climbing up high to catch favorable winds can pay off spectacularly. In the low-to-mid teens, 50 knot tailwinds are commonplace and a 70 or 80 knot tailwind is possible. Even in summer, when winds tend to be relatively light, going high can pay off. Here are some typical summer winds I pulled off of DUATS:

      6000    9000   12000   18000
 STL 2410+18 2809+12 3110+07 2917-04
 SPI 2510+18 3010+12 3211+07 2919-05
 JOT 2511+17 3012+12 3116+06 2926-07
 EVV 2509+17 3012+11 3216+07 3018-05
 IND 2411+16 3011+11 3114+07 2922-06
 FWA 2312+15 2812+10 2916+06 2926-07
 CVG 2210+15 2809+11 3012+07 3021-05
 CMH 2210+14 2710+10 2914+06 3026-07
 CRW 2108+15 2509+10 2908+06 3225-05
 AGC 2010+12 2510+09 2813+05 2930-09
 EKN 1907+13 2608+09 2810+06 3028-07
 PSB 1911+11 2509+08 2813+04 2930-11
 EMI 9900+11 2905+09 2811+05 2927-10

Even in these docile summertime conditions, we can expect 10 to 15 knots more tailwind component at 16,000’ than at 8,000’, which almost exactly offsets the TAS advantage of the lower altitude (144K vs. 130K). By climbing up high on an eastbound trip, we’ll go just as fast, burn considerably less fuel, and increase our IFR range nearly 400 NM! Not to mention that it’s almost always smoother and cooler up high. What’s not to like?

During the winter, when the winds tend to be stronger, going high on eastbound trips tends to be an even better deal, saving both time and fuel.

For turbos, it’s even better

If you’ve got a turbocharger, the argument for flying high becomes compelling, because the higher you fly in a turbo, the higher your speed, range and efficiency—at least up to the low Flight Levels in most turbocharged airplanes. These birds really shine up in the high teens and low twenties, and pilots who don’t take advantage of this capability don’t know what they’re missing.

For example, take a look at the “Range Profile” page for my Cessna T310R:

Cessna T310R Range Profile

Cessna T310R range profile page from POH.

Starting at 180 KTAS at sea level, max cruise speed at 73.6% power steadily increases with altitude to a relatively blistering 221 KTAS at FL200. (Above that altitude, available power starts dropping off fairly rapidly.)

Cruise Altitude Max
To fly an
800 NM Trip
5,000 190 K 860 NM 4:14 143 gal
10,000 199 K 890 NM 4:04 137 gal
15,000 209 K 930 NM 3:55 131 gal
20,000 221 K 970 NM 3:45 125 gal

Turbocharged, twin-engine Cessna T310R
(73.6% cruise, maximum gross weight  standard day, no wind,
163 gallons, 45 min reserve)

At the same time, range with IFR reserves climbs from 820 NM to 970 NM. Naturally, trip time and fuel burn for the proverbial 800 NM trip both drop accordingly—from 4:14 and 143 gallons at 5,000 to 3:45 and 125 gallons at FL200.

Personally, I don’t push my engines this hard. I almost always throttle back to between 60% and 65% power and settle for around 205 KTAS at FL200 at a miserly fuel burn of 26 gallons/hour, giving me a range of well over 1,000 NM with IFR reserves (or 1,200 NM if I fill my 20-gallon wing locker tank).

Once again, these figures assume no-wind conditions. Add in the wind on an eastbound trip and the results can get downright exciting. In the winter, I’ve seen my groundspeed edge above 300 knots from time to time. That’s fun! During the summer, on the other hand, I’m happy with 230 or 240 on the GPS readout.

Needless to say, you pay the piper going westbound. But if the winds aren’t too strong, it may still pay to go high rather than low. In my airplane, I gain 22 knots of true airspeed by climbing from 10,000’ to FL200. So if the headwind at FL200 is only 10 or 15 knots stronger than at 10,000’ (which is usually the case in summertime), higher is still better.

In wintertime, of course, westbound aircraft are all in the same boat, turbo or non-turbo. We bounce along at the MEA, try not to look at the groundspeed readout, hope the fillings in our teeth don’t fall out, and think about how much fun the eastbound part of the trip was (or will be).

Enjoy the high life!

If you’re one of those pilots who comes from the “I won’t climb higher than I’m willing to fall” school, you’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about. Believe me you’ve got plenty of company. But you’re also missing something really good.

Do yourself a favor: give high a try. It’s cooler and smoother up there. Your airplane flies faster and more efficiently up high. ATC will usually give you direct to just about anywhere. You’re above terrain, obstructions, and often the weather and the ice. The visibility is usually terrific. So are the tailwinds, if you’re lucky enough to be going in the right direction. Try it…you just might like it!

See & Avoid Doesn’t Work

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

Contemplate the worst scenario that might confront a pilot during a flight. What comes to mind? Fire? Flight control failure? Engine failure? Perhaps it’s flight crew incapacitation, explosive decompression or severe structural damage.

No doubt about it, those all fall into the Very Bad Day category. But there’s one that can be even worse: a mid-air collision. That’s because it can involve all the problems listed above — at the same time. And since the parties involved aren’t aware of the impending crunch until it’s too late, the mid-air is usually accompanied by a violent element of surprise, confusion, and initial denial.

You might think fatal mid-airs are rare events, and from a purely statistical standpoint I’d have to agree. According to the 2010 Nall Report, a fatal mid-air occurs about once every 8 million flight hours. Think of it as the roughly the same odds as winning the lottery or being struck by lighting. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? A typical GA pilot might accumulate but thousand or so hours over a full lifetime of flying.

So what’s there to worry about? Plenty. The “big sky” theory may sound good, but it doesn’t hold up very well under close scrutiny. It’s true that the navigable atmosphere over the United States alone is massive — about 20 million cubic miles — and there are relatively few airplanes in the sky. Even on those occasions where a collision is possible, modern tools such as radar, TCAS, VHF communication, and anywhere between two and four sets of eyeballs almost always succeed in averting the disaster. If aircraft were equally distributed throughout the atmosphere, the “big sky” idea would be pretty comforting.

But airplanes cluster near airports, large cities, and on thin slices of the sky known as “airways”. For the VFR types, airspace and terrain often crowd planes into small swaths of the air in places like the Santa Ana Canyon or Banning Pass. The sky is much like the ground: vehicles stick to relatively confined spaces and that makes collisions a serious hazard.

Since we’re on the topic of statistics, let me give you a few of my own: I personally know two people who have been struck by lightning, and a winning lottery ticket was recently sold not 300 feet from my front door. Hey, crazy stuff happens. But unlike lighting strikes and golden tickets, we’re not all facing the same odds. The risk profile varies widely depending on the type of flying you’re doing.

For example, flight instruction is frequently a factor; thirty-seven percent of mid-airs occur with a CFI on board. Many instructional flights happen near airports, and as previously mentioned, that’s where other airplanes tend to congregate. On the other hand, if you fly airliners, your risk of a mid-air is rather low because the aircraft itself is large and easy to see, you’re always flying IFR, and the most sophisticated traffic avoidance hardware available is always installed. Airliners also spend most of their time in cruise and are in constant radar contact with ATC.

Midair collisions are almost as old as powered flight itself.  This B-17 collided with a German fighter over Tunisia in 1943.

Midair collisions are almost as old as powered flight itself. This B-17 collided with a German fighter over Tunisia in 1943.

Think it can’t happen to you? Think again. Some very talented, capable, and well-respected pilots have been involved in mid-air collisions. I know a guy who was involved in one while flying a large-cabin, TCAS-equipped business jet under Instrument Flight Rules. Alan Klapmeier, the founder of Cirrus Aircraft, was in one too. Richard Collins, famed Flying columnist, was in a mid-air. Speaking of Flying, the recent Editor-in-Chief owns a very nice Cirrus SR-22 which was in a mid-air. And lastly, a decade ago I was in a mid-air collision myself.

I’ll save the blow-by-blow (no pun intended) on that for another day. The point I’m trying to make is that the odds of a mid-air are probably greater than you think, especially if you live in a populated metropolitan area and fly VFR. If you’ve ever had a close encounter with another airplane in flight, you were only separated from “those who have” by nothing more than a miniscule sliver of plain old luck.

Think about that for a moment.

This may be hard to believe, but there is some good news. For one thing, mid-airs are not always fatal. It seems intuitive that most collisions would involve fatalities, but all the people I cited above survived, including (obviously) myself. Also, technology is rapidly advancing, from cheap TCAD boxes to airframe parachutes to super-bright LED exterior lighting.

The question we should all be asking ourselves is how we avoid ending up in a mid-air, fatal or otherwise. If you refer to official guidance from the FAA, the answer is to simply look out the window and spot the other airplane before it hits you. This technique, referred to as “see and avoid”, is still considered adequate for preventing collisions. Here are a couple of passages from Chapter 1 of the Airplane Flying Handbook:

The “See and Avoid” concept relies on knowledge of the limitations of the human eye, and the use of proper visual scanning techniques to help compensate for these limitations. The importance of, and the proper techniques for, visual scanning should be taught to a student pilot at the very beginning of flight training.

Proper clearing procedures, combined with proper visual scanning techniques, are the most
effective strategy for collision avoidance.

Other FAA publications, ranging from the Aeronautical Information Manual, to Advisory Circulars like AC-90-48 (“Pilot’s Role in Collision Avoidance”) will give you the same spiel: “see and avoid will keep you safe”. And it will! Until it doesn’t.

From my perspective as someone who’s been in a mid-air and who was using proper clearing and scanning techniques at the time, I take it as gospel that “see & avoid” won’t always do the trick. I’m just one guy, of course. But many others — some institutional in nature — just happen to agree with me.

For example, a couple of years ago Canada’s Transportation Safety Board issued an accident report on a mid-air collision between a Beech V-35B Bonanza and a PA-28 Cherokee over northern Virginia. Canada was tasked with performing the investigation because the pilots of the Bonanza were employees of the NTSB while the Cherokee was piloted by an employee of the FAA.

I won’t keep you in suspense. The conclusion from the TSB was that the “see and avoid” concept was inadequate. They even quoted a 1991 report produced by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau which provides an overview of the major factors that limit the effectiveness of the see-and-avoid principle in preventing mid-air collisions, as well as a 2005 scientific study published in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine which came to the same conclusions.

The main points:

  • Cockpit workload and other factors reduce the time that pilots spend in traffic scans, and even when pilots are looking out, there is no guarantee that other aircraft will be sighted.
  • Visual scanning involves moving the eyes in order to bring successive areas of the visual field onto the small area of sharp vision in the center of the eye. The process is frequently unsystematic and may leave large areas of the field of view unsearched.
  • A thorough, systematic search is not a solution as in most cases it would take an impractical amount of time.
  • The physical limitations of the human eye are such that even the most careful search does not guarantee that traffic will be sighted.
  • The pilot’s functional visual field contracts under conditions of stress or increased workload. The resulting ‘tunnel vision’ reduces the chance that an approaching aircraft will be seen in peripheral vision.
  • The human visual system is better at detecting moving targets than stationary targets, yet in most cases, an aircraft on a collision course appears as a stationary target in the pilot’s visual field.
  • An approaching aircraft, in many cases, presents a very small visual angle until a short time before impact.
  • Complex backgrounds such as ground features or clouds hamper the identification of aircraft via a visual effect known as ‘contour interaction’. This occurs when background contours interact with the form of the aircraft, producing a less distinct image.
  • Even when an approaching aircraft has been sighted, there is no guarantee that evasive action will be successful.
  • Because of its many limitations, the see-and-avoid concept should not be expected to fulfill a significant role in future air traffic systems.
  • Transportation Safety Board of Canada aviation investigation report A06O0206 identified that there is a high risk of mid-air collisions in congested airspace when aircraft are not alerted to the presence of other aircraft and rely solely on the see‑and-avoid principle.

There’s one more area of the TSB report which is worth of quotation. In it, they reference a British Royal Air Force study into mid-air collisions. If you’re keeping score, that’s the third sovereign agency to reach the conclusion that “see and avoid” is inadequate. Yet our own FAA, which oversees about 80% of the world’s aircraft and almost all of the high traffic density airspace, still officially proclaims that one can look out the window and see everything that needs to be seen.

This accident has demonstrated yet again that relying solely on the see-and-avoid principle to avoid collisions between aircraft operating under visual flight rules (VFR) in congested airspace is inadequate.

A number of international studies have addressed the overall issue of the effectiveness of the see-and-avoid principle, as well as the risks of collision associated with this principle. All acknowledged the underlying physiological limitations at play and that, when mid-air collisions occur, “failure to see-and-avoid is due almost entirely to the failure to see.”

One study stated that “our data suggest that the relatively low (though unacceptable) rate of mid-air collisions in general aviation aircraft not equipped with TCAS [traffic alert and collision avoidance system] is as much a function of the ‘big sky’ as it is of effective visual scanning.”

A British Royal Air Force study into mid-air collisions, which were deemed to be random, found that the probability of conflict is proportional to the square of the traffic density, and recommended avoiding altitude restrictions that concentrate traffic.

Measures such as improving aircraft conspicuity, pilot scanning techniques, and pilot traffic awareness can reduce risks, but they do not overcome the underlying physiological limitations that create the residual risk associated with a see-and-avoid method.

It’s obvious that “see and avoid” cannot, by itself, ensure our safety. If it could, there’d be no need for TCAS or most of our controlled airspace (both of which came about because of high-profile mid-air collisions, I might add!). I’m not necessarily in favor of mandating any additional equipment, airspace, or restrictions, especially on general aviation. But it’s clear that serious changes are needed in how collision avoidance is taught, especially as it concerns “see and avoid”. The concept has serious limitations which must be understood so the pilot-in-command can make educated decisions about how — or even if — they want to mitigate those risks.

I sincerely hope our nation’s regulatory and safety organizations will eventually acknowledge what we all know to be true: “see and avoid”, while a good start and certainly a vital part of collision avoidance, is simply not sufficient to ensure traffic separation.

When Good Enough Just Isn’t

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

Tony Kern, CEO of Convergent Performance

I spent much of last week in Wichita, the nation’s air capitol, to attend an annual safety trek known as the Safety Standdown, jointly hosted by Bombardier and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA).

This 19th edition of the event drew about 450 attendees and another 1,100 online to listen to a host of smart, savvy aviators speak passionately about the need to head off accidents before they happen.

Before we prang an airplane applies to all of us and certainly doesn’t sound like rocket science anyway, does it? Read through the latest NTSB statistics and you’ll realize this simple philosophy apparently was rocket science to the pilots of the 566 GA accidents in the first eight months of 2014. The question of course is why?

Now if I start talking about professionalism in the midst of these accidents statistics most readers will think I’m referring to big-iron pilots paid to fly.

On the surface, professionalism’s a tag that on the surface doesn’t seem to fit with an Archer or a Cirrus driver, but it should, because thinking professionally, according to Dr. Tony Kern of Convergent Performance, can shape how we fly. At the Safety Standdown, Kern was an engaging, take no prisoners, kind of speaker and his logic is tough to refute once you’ve listened and let the philosophy sink in (watch his opening session talk).

Consider the Practical Test Standards, a booklet anyone who’s earned a pilot certificate knows well. It’s all about the limits the flight test examiner expects us to work with … how many feet + or – an applicant can stray in altitude, heading and airspeed for example. Meet the minimum standards for the pilot certificate and you’re probably home free. Airline and biz jet pilots fly to their certificate standards during their annual recurrent training too. They’re just checked once or twice a year. (more…)

GA pilots evaluate ADS-B options

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next revolution in general aviation

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Just about exactly 103 years ago, Nikola Tesla said: “I am now planning aerial machines devoid of sustaining planes, ailerons, propellers, and other external attachments, which will be capable of immense speeds”. Tesla ran out of money and wasn’t able to produce his craft but it now appears that maybe, just maybe, that his airplane– certainly by other means – may be on the not too distant horizon.

And the first terrestrial application will probably be a general aviation aircraft – at least, that is what the inventor of a radical new engine is saying.

Now this is a long shot – but that’s what thinking about the future involves. And everyone doesn’t agree about it. That too is integral to thinking about potential breakthroughs. But if this one works – and NASA has duplicated the basic concept – then we could be seeing the early indicators of the emergence of a new world

This one is different (like I said) because the EmDrive doesn’t use any traditional fuel. It generates thrust by the reaction of electromagnetic fields in a shaped cavity. You’ve got to generate electricity, for sure, but after that there are no moving parts. The electricity is converted directly into thrust.

Under the headline NASA’s impossible warp EmDrive proves possible: accelerates beams faster than light in a void, said: “Last summer, NASA made international headlines after finally testing British scientist Roger Shawyer’s ludicrous EmDrive, otherwise known as “the impossible engine,” and determining that the engine produced a minute level of thrust without any propellant. This is major, because it goes against the very laws of physics as defined by Newton’s third law, that is, that every action has an opposite and equal reaction; hence the nickname “the impossible engine.”  “Nearly eight months later, Paul March, an engineer at NASA Eagleworks, reported in a thread on (a website devoted to the engineering side of space exploration) that NASA has successfully tested the EmDrive in a vacuum and demonstrated that laser beams fired through the EmDrive’s resonance chamber exhibited fluctuations in velocity, with some beams appearing to surpass the speed of light.”

Now that should get you to the stars . . . or at least Mars. Shawyer thinks Mars is just a couple day flight with his engines.

NASA EmDrive test device

NASA EmDrive test device. Photo courtesy of SPR Ltd.

NASA EmDrive test device. Photo courtesy of SPR Ltd.

Shawyer says the first terrestrial applications will probably be for general aviation vehicles. The EmDrive website elaborates:

“The ultimate spin-off from space technology will occur when second generation lift engines are employed in terrestrial transport applications. Typically 3 tonnes of lift could be obtained from 1kW of microwave power. Liquid hydrogen would be used for cooling the lift engine and for powering the auxiliary engines. Thus the essential low cost, non-polluting components for large scale utilization are readily achievable. A future low energy transport infrastructure, no longer dependent on wings and wheels would now seem possible.”

Did you follow that? They say 6,000 pounds of lift could be generated by about the equivalent of 1.4 horsepower of generation power. That would change things.

Here’s an interesting interview with the inventor. Click on the picture below to watch it.

So you’ve got great new engines – now, what does the rest of the craft look like?

In the last couple of months a new breakthrough in the design of structures has been announced that has direct applications to future airframe construction. As in the case of the EmDrive, this invention is showing up in another sector – this time automobiles – but you don’t have to be a futurist to see that it could certainly be coming our way.

Here’s the picture that tells the story.


Divergent Microfactories presents the Blade in what the company says is the "world's first 3D printed super car" in this handout photo courtesy of Divergent Microfactories.

Divergent Microfactories presents the Blade in what the company says is the “world’s first 3D printed super car” in this handout photo courtesy of Divergent Microfactories.


This handsome beast comes from Divergent Microfactories and is interesting by itself (700 HP // 0-60 IN 2.2 SEC // 1,400 LBS).

But the way that they have designed and built this car points directly toward the GA market – starting particularly with experimental airframes. They’ve designed a chassis that is 1/10th the weight of that in a conventionally made car and costs about 10% of a steel one.

Here’s a shot from their website that shows the 3D printed aluminum “nodes” that, coupled with carbon fiber tubes makes a frame (in about 30 minutes), that is stronger than steel ones.

Divergent Microfactories presents a frame member for the Blade in what the company says is the "world's first 3D printed super car" in this handout photo courtesy of Divergent Microfactories.

Divergent Microfactories presents a frame member for the Blade in what the company says is the “world’s first 3D printed super car” in this handout photo courtesy of Divergent Microfactories.

Take a look at this video. The whole chassis is in that bag!

Divergent Microfactories Blade DEBUTS #SOLIDCON 6/24/15 from Divergent Microfactories on Vimeo.

So, one way or another we’re on our way to a revolution . . . and it may be sooner than we think.

If you like this kind of stuff, you might find the talk that I’ll be giving on the future of aviation at NBAA this fall of interest. Come by and say hi if you’re there.

Notes from Paris: F-WILE Beguiles and Intrigues

Monday, June 29th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man vs. Machine: The Challenge of Staying Sharp in the 21st Century

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

So there I was, sitting in the cockpit of a 2015 Super Decathlon the other day, twisting my sunburned noggin into a pretzel trying to decide whether the ship was a throwback to the 1940s or a glimpse of general aviation’s high-tech future. You’d think that would be an easy call. The Decathlon is a derivative of the Aeronca Champ, after all.

But tube-and-fabric airframe aside, the Garmin GTN750 touchscreen, Aspen Evolution 1000, ADS-B data link, and other gadgetry made me realize that the greatest advances in avionics and aircraft automation are not found in airliners. They’re found in general aviation aircraft, many of them with the same reciprocating engines (and, on occasion, steel tube fuselages) they had seventy years ago.

We now live in a world where you can ask your iPhone to whip up a flight plan and wirelessly transmit it to the avionics in your airplane so you don’t have to input a thing. For the IFR pilot, did ATC give you a re-route? No problem — and no buttons to press (except perhaps the Staples “easy” button). Just touch the screen of your Garmin navigator and drag the course line to wherever you want it to go. Flying: “so easy a caveman can do it”.

Or is it?

I’m not anti-technology. Far from it. I’m a computer nerd and can’t get enough of the stuff. Nor am I suggesting that a high-tech cockpit even makes life easier. Especially when equipment fails or doesn’t respond as expected, the work load can ratchet up very quickly. But the truth is that once you’ve got the boxes figured out, automation can and does rob us of basic flying skill unless we take a proactive stance to prevent the erosion of those skills.

How could it not? Automated aircraft make us flight managers, not pilots who physically control the aircraft. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s something pilots far and wide need to acknowledge and be aware of.

The insidiously perishable nature of flying skill is ironic, because as most manufacturers will tell you, from a statistical viewpoint aviation is considerably safer due to the march of technology. What remains unsaid, however, is that much like beefing up a weak point on an aerobatic aircraft, we’re just shifting the hazard to another area. The wing might be able to withstand 16 Gs, but that doesn’t mean the engine mount can. If you strengthen the engine mount, then the empennage or longerons become the weakest link. Each component has its own failure point and mode.
Likewise for automation. Sure, it relieves fatigue from hand flying. It brings amazing weather, terrain, and traffic information into the cockpit. Situational awareness is a snap. Fuel burn can now be accurately estimated to within a few pounds on a multi-hour flight.

But it also means we’re more disconnected from the airplane since we aren’t physically flying it. Up and down drafts are masked because the autopilot handles them for us — until it trims all the way to the critical angle of attack. I’ve seen that happen multiple times without the pilot even being aware of it. Our hand flying skills and instrument scan decay due to lack of use.

This sort of thing is especially unnerving to me because I’m aware of it and yet have also fallen victim to it myself on occasion.

I think of automation the same way I think of air traffic control. It’s a safety asset, but one I must constantly monitor because it has failed before and it will fail again some day. I’ve been vectored into traffic, sent across a localizer toward a mountain (ie. forgotten about), and given instructions meant for another aircraft. I’ve even had a controller attempt to cancel my active IFR flight plan in mid-flight without my assent.

Automation is no different. The challenge is to keep our skills sharp and expect the unexpected. If hand-flying skill was well established in the beginning of a pilot’s flying career, that’s not an insurmountable challenge. The modern aviator, though, sees this automation from a very early point, and for some of them, the basic flying skills are not well established. The automation serves to mask the inadequacies. As long as everything keeps running properly, no harm/no foul.

When it doesn’t? Well, that’s where the rock meets the not-so-proverbial hard place, as we’re starting to discover.

It occurs to me that flying “raw data” after a long period away from hand-flying can be as challenging as the transition to a new airplane. I see many similarities in initial pilot performance, especially if the aviator has been confined to a single aircraft type for a long period.

In that regard, I believe one of the best ways to keep yourself sharp is to fly varying types of aircraft. If, for example, you fly an aerobatic plane or a glider in addition to that shiny jet, odds are you’ll enhance and retain skills you probably aren’t even aware of. Perhaps that aptitude is simply the mental agility to move from one cockpit to another. Maybe it’s an improved competence with pitch/power relationships or comfort with unusual attitudes.

However poorly I may have explained it, I’ve simply noticed that those who fly multiple types of aircraft seem to be able to adapt to changes faster than those who don’t. I doubt this has as much to do with physical ability as it does mental acuity.

The rudimentary flight skills must be developed in primary training because there is little room made for them during advanced ratings, and automation can easily mask the lack of those abilities until they are the only thing standing between a pilot and a Very Bad Day. As such, the case is made for conducting primary flight training in a non-automated aircraft, or at the very least, with the automation fully disabled.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’d take it one step further and suggest that every pilot should learn to fly in the most stone-simple tailwheel airplane available. They’re economical. They put the focus on primary flight skills most likely to atrophy later. They simply will not abide poor airmanship. And most of all, they’re fun to fly. Isn’t that why we got into aviation in the first place?

Unfortunately, the trend is headed in the opposite direction — even Cubs come with glass panels these days! But as far as I know, they’re still making them with an “off” switch, so the hope for a better training experience will continue to spring eternal.

FAA Reauthorization from a Global Perspective

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

This year’s Regional Airline Association (RAA) Conference in Cleveland, Ohio, was a fascinating place to be if you are at all interested in how the various interested parties in the U.S. and abroad are thinking about the up and coming FAA Reauthorization. (And if you aren’t interested you should be. GA pilots have a stake in how the FAA’s limited resources are parceled out.)

FAA mission shift, delays caused by ATC inefficiencies and TSA inefficiencies, noise, environmental concerns: they talked about it all. RAA interim President Faye Malarkey Black sat stage center surrounded on both sides by association leaders that included European Regional Airlines Association Director General Simon McNamara; Airlines 4 America President Nick Calio; Airports Council International North Americas President and CEO Kevin Burke, and Cargo Airline Association President Steve Alterman. Each brought a different angle on the issue, all of it fascinating to me, a user of regional airlines, and a general aviation pilot who wants to keep using my fair share of the system that my taxes pay for.

Leading the concerns was the fear that there will be no pilots to fly regional airliners in the U.S. if an effective career pathway is not both clearly established and marketed to high school students on a national level.

Cargo Airline Association President Steve Alterman is deeply worried. “Our carriers guarantee overnight service in cargo. We depend on our regional cargo partners to get the packages to those outlying communities, and from them to our gateway hubs for transit to destination. If we don’t have the pilots we can’t guarantee service to those small communities. That changes our whole business model. We’ve got to be more creative. I think it is in all of our interests to form a partnership between the academic community, military, regionals and mainline carriers to work together to create a track for pilot training.”

On the subject of air service frequency, Airports Council International North Americas President and CEO Kevin Burke said, “We’ve seen loss of air service at smaller fields. We don’t want to hand over the business to buses and trains. These small air fields are gold for their communities.” He probably wasn’t thinking about the opportunities for Part 135 charter aircraft services that open up when the airlines pull out of a small community airport. But then, Part 135 operators don’t offer the volume of people buying tickets that airports are becoming dependent on for revenue.

Airlines 4 America President Nick Calio thinks big change is necessary. “ATC is key,” he implored. “In every other regulatory government body, they don’t have ATC and FAA under one roof. We think we should have a nonprofit commercial entity for ATC that is funded not by taxes but some other format, and has an independent body that manages it and has industry representation and a pure safety focus to its objective,” he said.

ERA Director General Simon McNamara chuckled and said, “In Europe we’ve got 28 regulatory bodies, different languages, different cultures and one safety body that sits on top of air traffic control. Yet the FAA delivers a service with a 34% less per unit cost than Europe. We’re quite jealous of how simple you have it, so consider yourself lucky.”

When he put it like that, I certainly did!

A Tale of Two Air Shows: Aero Friedrichshafen and Sun ‘n Fun

Friday, April 24th, 2015

Springtime after the longest winters are often times the most special, and spring 2015 is no different. Both the flowers and the dormant fliers, particularly of light aircraft, bloom anew. Two April-based air show / fly-ins fire up what may prove to be a most interesting season: Aero Friedrichshafen, in Germany, and Sun ‘n Fun, in Lakeland, Florida. And the two shows could not be more different.

Aero’s highlights this year were electric—literally! The show focused on electric propulsion and capturing power from the sun to fly. Why? In Europe pilots have suffered through decades of unnaturally high fuel costs that have effectively tamped down their enthusiasm for general aviation. Green fuel initiatives, from bio-diesel to electric are offering thousands of pilots and would-be pilots hope that general aviation can thrive again by bypassing fossil fuels completely.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. we are celebrating a winter of lower fuel pricing, and a springtime that has those prices holding steady. New legislation eliminating the need for a Third Class medical for some GA pilots is in committee and could help keep older pilots flying while encouraging more recreational fliers to join the flock. On the professional side of the aviation industry labor shortages are beginning to sting. A dearth of both airline-ready pilots and mechanics are putting the stops on growth at regional airlines around the U.S.

As I write this Sun ‘n Fun’s Fly-in is in full swing and vendors at the event are excited that real buyers are on the Lakeland Linder Airport with money in their pockets ready to spend. To spur them on Piper Aircraft and Mooney Aircraft are both offering new airframes, at the top for Piper (the M600 single-engine turboprop) and at the bottom for Mooney (a diesel-powered trainer). Superior Aviation set forth a three-cylinder, 100 hp diesel engine replacement for the Rotax 912 piston-engine, and revealed plans to scale up to larger diesel powerplants.

Interestingly, several airlines, both regional and national, and a dozen aviation training centers (universities to FBOs) were recruiting onsite, too. Where to find more commercial pilots, A&P mechanics, and certified dispatch professionals was a big topic of conversation there. The good news is that the Sun ‘n Fun charitable arm and its funding partners are working hard on the problem, reaching out to youth through educational projects and scholarships in high school and colleges around Central Florida (and beyond) to teach them the wonders of aviation, and all of its potential.

The best news, though, is that even with their differences, both Aero Friedrichshafen and Sun ‘n Fun are revealing the upbeat, optimistic sentiment prevailing among general aviation pilots this spring. Hey, it’s getting warmer, the sun is shining a little longer every day, and the skies are showing their blue. There is no time like the present to start working on the future. Get up and get flying!