Posts Tagged ‘general aviation’

Freedoms of the Air

Friday, February 7th, 2014
Bonnie, Laura, Camille ready for lift off

Bonnie, Laura, Camille ready for lift off

Recently I got the chance to talk with a good friend and Ambassador for General Aviation, Mike Jesch.  Mike is an American Airlines Captain, pilot for Angel Flight, LightHawk, and Cessnas to OSH, FAAST speaker, CFII, board member of Fullerton Pilots Association, you get the drift.

He and his family are hosting some foreign exchange students from the Agricultural University of Beijing, China, for a two week US holiday. Mike secretly hoped that it would work out to take the kids for a short ride in his Cessna 182, and indeed was a question he asked of the exchange program coordinator: Would it be okay to take the kids for an airplane ride? He was very relieved to receive an affirmative answer. The three girls, Bonnie, Camille, and Laura, were all very enthusiastic about this idea.

The day dawned clear and bright, and as they approached the airport and the airplanes came into view, he could see the excitement level increase on each of the girls’ faces.  He recalls, “When I opened the hangar door revealing my 1977 Cessna 182Q, the excitement reached a fever pitch. I walked them around the airplane, explaining my preflight inspection procedure, sampled the fuel, checked the oil, then showed them the cabin interior and gave them my passenger briefing. I reassured them that, at any point, if any of them were nervous, or scared, just let me know, and I’d land the airplane as soon as possible. They were still eager and willing, so we saddled up and started off.” As he lifted off the runway at Fullerton, CA [KFUL] and announced “…And, we’re flying!”, the pitch of their voices went up further still, and the smiles stretched from ear to ear! ”  The plan was to fly around the LA area, showing them the downtown area, Dodger Stadium, Griffith Park, the Hollywood sign, Malibu, Santa Monica, through the Mini Route down to Redondo Beach, around the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the Queen Mary, and back to Fullerton. From shortly after takeoff, their noses were pressed to the windows, and excited chatter passed back and forth, each pointing out one sight or another, and cameras clicking away.

The next day, Mike got a call from one of the other host parents of two freshman boys. Apparently, the girls had been communicating with their friends! The boys had expressed an interest in also going for an airplane ride.  So, on that night, after dinner, he drove all the kids back over to the airport.  He said, “The boys  were amazed when they saw the airplane for the first time.”  The usual pre-flight inspection and briefing ensued, and they were off.  Kelvin and Owen (joined by Mike’s daughter, Karen) were audibly excited, too, as they defied gravity and launched into the night sky. Astounded by the beauty of all the lights of the LA area, they were instantly transfixed. Mike negotiated a transition through the Los Alamitos Army Air Base to the shoreline, then turned right to fly over the port of Long Beach and Los Angeles. Spectacularly lit up at night, the boys appreciated the sight of the world’s largest port complex, where most of the goods imported from China arrive and are unloaded and shipped all over the country.

Image

Owen ,Camille, Karen, Bonnie, Mike, Laura and Kelvin

Mike reflected on the differences between general aviation in the United States versus China.  “All the kids were absolutely amazed that a private citizen such as myself could own an airplane, go and visit it at any time, take it up in the air whenever I want, even flying directly over the top of a local military base and weapons depot and the largest port complex in the world, at night, all without a mountain of paperwork and permission from the authorities. In all of China, there are not more than a couple hundred airplanes in private hands, yet here at my home base Fullerton Airport alone, we have over 200 airplanes. And we have hundreds of airports across this country that have even more.” He pondered this difference between our countries, and says he gained a new appreciation for the freedoms of the air that we enjoy in this country. Certainly we have issues to deal with, perhaps chief among them cost and regulation, but in spite of all the issues, the system of aviation we have here is still pretty darned good, and worth protecting. Worth celebrating. Worth using. And perhaps most importantly, worth sharing it, especially with those who live in a place where this is not possible. “I harbor no illusions that these young Chinese students will themselves have the opportunity to become pilots, or to own airplanes. But maybe, just maybe, they’ll have a conversation with some friends, perhaps even future leaders in China, and tell them about the time – you won’t believe this! – when they got to fly in a small private airplane in California, on a clear and beautiful winter evening” he says.

Why I Don’t Talk About “General Aviation” Anymore

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Back in the 1950′s, Cessna Aircraft produced this gem… “Wings for Doubting Thomas

This little documentary clearly spelled out the value proposition for Private Aviation 2 generations ago.

I rarely talk about “General Aviation.”

Like most people who read this blog, I’m much more interested in, “Private Aviation.”

You might think quickly that it’s the same, thing, but it’s not. General aviation is broadly defined as as all aviation except for military and airlines. That’s great, but I’m not a, “General Aviation enthusiast.” Frankly I don’t care much about, “General Aviation.” I don’t fly biz jets, cargo, fly much for hire, (Though I have the certificate for, it’s just not a big part of my life these days.) spray crops, perform in air shows, whatever…

While I may aspire to sit in the back of a something with turbines, drinking Cristal… It does not inspire me. I’d rather be up front flying the jet.

Private aviation is the part of civil aviation that does not include flying for hire.”

“In most countries, private flights are always general aviation flights, but the opposite is not true: many general aviation flights (such as banner towing, charter, crop dusting, and others) are commercial in that the pilot is hired and paid. Many private pilots fly for their own enjoyment, or to share the joys and convenience of general aviation with friends and family.”

– Wikipedia

You see “General Aviation,” is doing just fine. Ask anyone running a jet charter business these days. Business is up, folks who choose to afford it are buying jet cards and getting to where they want to go in style, and plenty of people are making a good living helping them get there. I’m fine with all that. “General Aviation,” is not dying. It’s growing.

But “Private Aviation” is the community that inspires me. It’s Private Aviation that’s what we’re really talking about when we fry bacon at Camp Scholler, or eat pancakes at the fly in. The ability to climb into a plane and fly myself and my friends or family someplace is like a magic power.

It’s Private Aviation that we built OpenAirplane to serve.

So you see, I don’t talk much about General Aviation. When I speak to the press about OpenAirplane. I explain that it is a marketplace for Private Aviation. I get asked all the time if OpenAirplane will let them hail a jet like they can hail a cab, or if we can help them charter a flight. My answer is always, “Not yet.” It’s just not the business we’re in right now. There are plenty of smart people working to offer charter for businesses and pleasure. That part of General Aviation is well served. I explain that we are focused on Private Aviation, because that’s where the opportunity lies today to unlock more value than anywhere else right now. General Aviation is a competitive, well served market with a healthy ecosystem. But Private Aviation hasn’t seen much innovation since Cessna commissioned that film. This is strange to me, because GPS, iPads, and composites sure have made it a lot easier. Private Aviation can create entirely new use cases for the over 5,000 airports, thousands of aircraft, and hundreds of thousands of certificates in the wallets of  pilots across the country.

Private Aviation has been in decline since the airlines we’re deregulated in 1978. The value proposition of Private Aviation has been evolving ever since. The industry and the community need to both step up to communicate the value proposition for Private Aviation to a new generation of “doubting Thomases,” updating what you see in the old documentary film above to speak to the value proposition we can offer today.

For most of us, the conversation isn’t about General Aviation, it’s about Private Aviation. Let’s call it what it is. I have no time sit back and complain. I believe we can make it better than ever.

Time for a Shakeup

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Last November the Federal Air Surgeon, Fred Tilton, unilaterally declared that mandatory screening for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in pilots would begin “shortly.”

The initial BMI threshold would be 40, with an ominous vow that “once we have appropriately dealt with every airman examinee who has a BMI of 40 or greater, we will gradually expand the testing pool by going to lower BMI measurements until we have identified and assured treatment for every airman with OSA.”

Tilton noted that “up to 30% of individuals with a BMI less than 30 have OSA”. Between the fact that people with normal-range BMIs have been diagnosed with sleep apnea and his apparent zest for uncovering “every” airman with OSA, logic dictates that the eventual threshold would be in the mid-20s, if not lower.

The aviation community was up in arms pretty quickly, and for good reason. For one thing, the mid-20s are the upper end of the normal BMI range. It’s also worth noting that even the World Health Organization acknowledges that the BMI scale was never designed for application to individual people, but rather for statistical modeling of entire populations. BMI is based solely on weight and height, so it does not account for differing body types. Nor does it obey the law of scaling, which dictates that mass increases to the 3rd power of height.

In plain English, a bigger person will always have a higher BMI even if they are not any fatter. This penalizes tall individuals, as well as bodybuilders and athletes who are in prime physical shape by assigning them absurdly high BMI numbers. Likewise, short people are misled into thinking that they are thinner than they are.

Nevertheless, Tilton declared his intention to press on anyway, without any industry input or following established rulemaking procedures despite the fact that this scavenger hunt would break invasive new ground in aeromedical certification.

Then, even the Aviation Medical Examiners objected to the new policy, noting that “no scientific body of evidence has demonstrated that undiagnosed obesity or OSA has compromised aviation safety” and that providing long term prognoses is not part of the FAA’s job. The medical certification exists soley to “determine the likelihood of pilot incapacitation for the duration of the medical certificate.”

Without the support of the civil aviation medicine community, Tilton was literally standing alone. At that point, Congress jumped into the fray on the pilot community’s behalf and eventually forced the Air Surgeon to back down… for now.

While the battle may have been won, the war is far from over. Mark my words, this is not the last you’ll hear about this bogeyman. Tilton may be forced to consult with the aviation community or follow a rulemaking procedure of some sort, but his zeal for the topic means OSA screening will be back in one form or another.

To effectively combat such overreach, we’ve got to attack the problem from its true source. In this case, the Air Surgeon’s ammunition came from National Transportation Safety Board recommendations issued in the wake of a 2008 regional airline flight which overflew its destination by 26 miles when both pilots fell asleep.

… the National Transportation Safety Board recommends that the Federal Aviation Administration:

Modify the Application for Airman Medical Certificate to elicit specific information about any previous diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea and about the presence of specific risk factors for that disorder. (A-09-61)

Implement a program to identify pilots at high risk for obstructive sleep apnea and require that those pilots provide evidence through the medical certification process of having been appropriately evaluated and, if treatment is needed, effectively treated for that disorder before being granted unrestricted medical certification. (A-09-62)

The NTSB serves a useful purpose in assisting transportation disaster victims and investigating accidents, but when it comes to safety recommendations, the agency operates in a kind of vacuum, divorced from some of the most pressing realities of the modern general aviation world. The reason is simple: their mission statement. It calls for the Board to “independently advance transportation safety” by “determining the probable cause of the accidents and issuing safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents.”

While there’s nothing objectionable about their mission, note how there’s no mention of the cost these recommendations impose on those of us trying to make a go of it in the flying industry. Since it’s not part of their mission statement, it is not a factor the Board takes into account. It doesn’t even appear on their radar. The Board’s federal funding and their lack of rulemaking authority negates any such considerations. So a sleep apnea study costs thousands of dollars — so what? If it prevents one pilot from falling asleep in the cockpit in next half century, it’s well worth the decimation to an already down-and-out sector of the economy.

That’s been the logic for the NTSB since it was conceived by the Air Commerce Act in 1926. It worked well when aerospace safety was at its nadir — but that was nearly ninety years ago. As air transportation evolved during the 20th century, attempts at increasing safety have reached the point of diminishing returns and exponentially increasing cost. At some point the incessant press toward a perfect safety record will make aviating such a sclerotic activity that it will, in effect, cease.

It’s a problem for any industry, and it’s especially so for one that’s teetering on the edge of oblivion the way ours is. The good news is that this can be fixed. It’s time to shake things up at the NTSB by revising their mission statement to make cost analysis a major part of the Board’s function. They should work with stakeholders to carefully study the long-term effect each recommendation would have on the health and size of the aviation industry before they make it.

For what it’s worth, the FAA needs this mission statement adjustment just as much as the NTSB. More, in fact, because the NTSB can recommend anything it wishes, but the regulatory power to act upon those suggestions is outside their purview and rests with the Federal Aviation Administration. From medical approval to burdensome aircraft certification rules, the FAA is the hammer. We have to start somewhere, though, and the NTSB is in many ways the top of the heap, the place where these ideas get their start. It would be nice to see the industry’s lobbyists in Washington, D.C. suggest such a bill to members of Congress.

One final thought: if government’s power really does derive from the “consent of the governed”, this should be an idea even the NTSB (and FAA) can get behind. Otherwise, they may convene one day and find that there’s not much of an industry left for them to prescribe things to.

The Waddington Effect

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014
Conrad Hal (C.H.) Waddington

C.H. Waddington (1905-1975)

In 1943, a British scientist named Conrad Hal (C.H.) Waddington made a remarkable discovery about aircraft maintenance.  He was a most unlikely person to make this discovery, because he wasn’t an aeronautical engineer or an aircraft mechanic or even a pilot.  Actually, he was a gifted developmental biologist, paleontologist, geneticist, embryologist, philosopher, poet and painter who wasn’t particularly interested in aviation.  But like many other British scientists at that time, his career was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War and he found himself pressed into service with the Royal Air Force (RAF).

Waddington wound up reporting to the RAF Coastal Command, heading up a group of fellow scientists in the Coastal Command Operational Research Section.  Its job was to advise the British military on how it could more effectively combat the threat from German submarines.  In that capacity, Waddington and his colleagues developed a series of astonishing recommendations that defied military conventional wisdom of the time.

For example, the bombers used to hunt and kill U-boats were mostly painted black in order to make them difficult to see.  But Waddington’s group ran a series of experiments that proved that bombers painted white were not spotted by the U-boats until they were 20% closer, resulting in a 30% increase in successful sinkings. Waddington’s group also recommended that the depth charges dropped by the bombers be set to explode at a depth of 25 feet instead of 100 feet.  This recommendation—initially resisted strongly by RAF commanders—ultimately resulted in a sevenfold increase in the number of U-boats destroyed.

Consolidated B-24 "Liberator" bomber

Consolidated B-24 “Liberator” bomber

Waddington subsequently turned his attention to the problem of “force readiness” of the bombers.  The Coastal Command’s B-24 “Liberator” bombers were spending an inordinate amount of time in the maintenance shop instead of hunting U-boats.  In July 1943, the two British Liberator squadrons located at Ballykelly, Northern Ireland, consisted of 40 aircraft, but at any given time only about 20 were flight-ready.  The other aircraft were down for any number of reasons, but mostly undergoing or awaiting maintenance—either scheduled or unscheduled—or waiting for replacement parts.

At that time, conventional wisdom held that if more preventive maintenance were performed on each aircraft, fewer problems would arise and more incipient problems would be caught and fixed—and thus fleet readiness would surely improve. It turned out that conventional wisdom was wrong. It would take C.H. Waddington and his Operational Research team to prove just how wrong.

Waddington and his team started gathering data about the scheduled and unscheduled maintenance of these aircraft, and began crunching and analyzing the numbers.  When he plotted the number of unscheduled aircraft repairs as a function of flight time, Waddington discovered something both unexpected and significant: The number of unscheduled repairs spiked sharply right after each aircraft underwent its regular 50-hour scheduled maintenance, and then declined steadily over time until the next scheduled 50-hour maintenance, at which time they spiked up once again.

Waddington Effect graph

When Waddington examined the plot of this repair data, he concluded that the scheduled maintenance (in Waddington’s own words) “tends to INCREASE breakdowns, and this can only be because it is doing positive harm by disturbing a relatively satisfactory state of affairs. There is no sign that the rate of breakdowns is starting to increase again after 40-50 flying hours when the aircraft is coming due for its next scheduled maintenance.” In other words, the observed pattern of unscheduled repairs demonstrated that the scheduled preventive maintenance was actually doing more harm than good, and that the 50-hour preventive maintenance interval was inappropriately short.

The solution proposed by Waddington’s team—and ultimately accepted by the RAF commanders over the howls of the maintenance personnel—was to increase the time interval between scheduled maintenance cycles, and to eliminate all preventive maintenance tasks that couldn’t be demonstrably proven to be beneficial. Once these recommendations were implemented, the number of effective flying hours of the RAF Coastal Command bomber fleet increased by 60 percent!

Fast forward two decades to the 1960s, when a pair of gifted scientists who worked for United Airlines—aeronautical engineer Stanley Nowlan and mathematician Howard Heap—independently rediscovered these principles in their pioneering research on optimizing maintenance that revolutionized the way maintenance is done in air transport, military aviation, high-end bizjets and many non-aviation industrial applications.  They were almost certainly unaware of the work of C.H. Waddington and his colleagues in Britain in the 1940s because that work remained classified until 1973, when Waddington’s meticulously-kept diary of his wartime research activities was declassified and published.

Next time, I’ll discuss the fascinating work of Nowlan and Heap on what came to be known as “Reliability Centered Maintenance.” But for now, I will leave you with the major takeaway from Waddington’s research during World War II: Maintenance isn’t an inherently good thing (like exercise); it’s a necessary evil (like surgery). We have to do it from time to time, but we sure don’t want to do more than absolutely necessary to keep our aircraft safe and reliable. Doing more maintenance than necessary actually degrades safety and reliability.

What General Aviation Can Look Forward to in 2014

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

Kicking off the shiny new year by sharing some things that I’m looking forward to in 2014. What excites me about these developments is their potential to have far-reaching impact on the aviation community and the industry that supports it.

 

ICON A5

A5ICON gets a lot of flack from the traditionalists in the aviation community. But with with first pre-production aircraft on track to be completed in mid-2014, and the first deliveries of production aircraft planned later this year, this is a product  is looking less like vaporware everyday. Partnering up with Cirrus Aircraft (Folks who know a lot of about building composite aircraft) for production seems like such a smart move. Why re-invent production techniques when you’re reinventing the experience of flying for the fun of it?

A modern, clean sheet aircraft design which reimagines what flying for fun can be has a ton of potential. The ICON A5 is product which feels like a mashup of a jet ski and a seaplane to offer something completely new. Team ICON has focused their efforts not on the dwindling traditional aviation community, but on a much broader market for recreational motorsports. Everything ICON does is feel more at home at luxury motorsport dealership, not the stodgy milquetoast spaces we associate with today’s aviation brands.

Ditching the airspeed indicator, for a far more intuitive Angle Of Attack system is a great example of how this is a product designed for folks who aren’t pilots. (Yet.)

No single product I know of has as much potential to suck otherwise unsuspecting “civilians”  into the aviation lifestyle.

 

Cessna 182 Turbo Skylane JT-A

JTAI love this airplane. The new JTA-A even looks better. As the old saying goes, the C-182 Skylane isn’t great at anything, but it’s good at everything. This is product where the world called, and Cessna listened. A proven legacy airframe, is getting a new heart. This bird sips Jet-A.

Bolting a SMA SR305-230 diesel engine and a new cowling onto this workhorse airframe should be a winner. Burning Jet-A gets you 30-to-40-percent lower fuel burn per hour, faster cruise, better climb, and no mixture control to futz with.

Cessna knows the market for newly built light aircraft is overseas, and anything burning avgas is going to have limited utility due to the constraints on 100LL infrastructure around the world. This is the year the market makes the the move to Jet-A.

 

Redhawk 172

RedhawkOn the other end of the spectrum, the folks at Redbird (Folks who have done a great job bringing some great training technology in reach of far more flight schools than ever before.) are taking a different approach. Back in the 1970′s when the manufactures were churning out airframes at a rate that made the efficient to build, they were relatively affordable to buy. The folks at Redbird are essential recycling legacy airframes to make training aircraft affordable again.

With the cost of a newly built 172 often climbing out of the reach of many flight schools, Redbird will start remanufacturing old 172s, stripping them down to the bare metal, and offering 172 Redhawks to the training industry.

They’ll start by hanging Continental‘s Centurion turbo-diesel engine, which sips Jet-A at just 4.5 gallons per hour, (Again, more Jet-A) install Aspen Avionics’ Evolution glass panel in a new interior, and new paint. Everything about the Redhawk will be tuned for the demands of a busy flight school.

Redhawk will be a package solution for flight schools. Including insurance, leasing “power by the hour,” with an innovative lease program through partner Brown Aviation. This could mean that more schools could get better access to more modern equipment. Flight schools will be free to concentrate on finding customers, not financing. The beta program starts in Spring.

 

Mooney is Back

MooneyJust when it seems like the idea of building airplanes designed for personal transportation seems to be going the way of the betamax, Mooney is starting the production lines back up this year.

These are some really nice traveling machines. Simple trainers they are not. They don’t have all the features you find in more modern designs, but if the prices can be kept reasonable, they could be competitive again.

This is a product with a lot of fans. It’s nice to see another option in the marketplace of aircraft well suited to private aviation.

 

Space Tourism

Virgin GalacticStarting in 2014. Folks who bought a ticket will starting climbing aboard rocket ships that will take them into space.

Now I  won’t be able to afford a ride, (for a long while) but then again I probably wouldn’t have been able to afford to buy a ticket on the earliest airlines 100 years ago either. Virgin Galactic will commence sub-orbital hops above the Kármán line, with a view of the curvature of the earth, and some zero G thrown in for good measure.

Sir Branson has compared SpaceShipTwo to the Ford Trimotor of of our time. I’m good with that. Mostly because I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

 

Demo Teams Back In Action

T- BirdsAir shows are the largest outdoor professional sports in North America. These performances and static displays are the backbone of the air show experience. Last year’s sequestration debacle caused the outright cancellation of many air shows around the country.

Now the economic impact aside, the impact to recruiting can be debated other places…

…but the impact on inspiration is clear. The inspiration air shows deliver have a huge impact on aviation, aerospace more broadly, and across the board STEM education is huge.

Nothing delivers the tonnage of inspiration like an air show.

…and if you don’t like air shows, we just can’t be friends.

 

So that’s what I’m looking forward to. How about you? What did I miss? What do you look forward to the most?

Happy New Year everyone. Let’s make it awesome.

 

 

Flying Careers: Choose Wisely!

Monday, December 30th, 2013

One of the things I love most about aviation is the incredible diversity of jobs and experiences available to those of us who venture into this exciting world. There are so many disparate flying gigs out there that referring to them with the generic “pilot” moniker is almost deceptive.

I’ve got friends who are professional aerobatic coaches, bush country explorers, test pilots, flight instructors, fire fighters, sightseeing tour specialists, military aviators, ISR (Intel/Surveillence/Recon) pilots in Afghanistan, banner towing experts, ferry pilots, VLJ mentors, formation sky typing team members, and more.

I even know a few who fly for airlines.

Float planes are just one option for those seeking a career in the air (and/or on the water!)

Float planes are just one option for those seeking a career in the air (and/or on the water!)

There are countless nooks and crannies in the flying world! An example from my own life: I spent several years working for Dynamic Aviation on a sterile insect technique contract here in Los Angeles. If you’ve never heard the term, you’re not alone. The shortest description I can think of would be “cropdusting in a dense urban environment”. What made the job unique is that we were dropping live sterilized fruit flies instead of chemicals, and the aircraft we used were restricted category, ex-military King Airs.

But we had many of the other elements you’d find in any other cropdusting operation: light bars, AgNavs, low-altitude flying, and certification as an aerial applicator. I wrote a “day in the life” of the operation a few years ago if you’re interested in reading more about it.

Every flying job requires a different combination of talents and abilities. The iPad-specific P1 Aviation Magazine recently completed an interesting three-part series on the unique skills required by pilots in corporate flying. This happens to be my current niche, and it echoed an early realization that not everyone is cut out for this line of work.

You might think “hey, flying is flying — they’re all airplanes!”, but there’s so much more to it than just manipulating the flight controls. At a Part 121 airline like United or JetBlue, someone else prepares a weather package, computes weight & balance, files the flight plan, handles security, greets the passengers, loads the bags, organizes the catering, restocks the galley, and cleans the cabin.

In charter and corporate flying, the pilots are responsible for all those tasks — and much more. The actual flying is almost an afterthought. That’s not to say the aviating is not important — obviously it’s our primary job! But corporate aviation is less of a transportation business than it is a service industry. It requires a specific mindset, and the fact is, there are plenty of outstanding aviators who just don’t fit into that mold. It’s simply not in their DNA to futz with those things, to spend hours waiting for passengers, and to roll with the punches when the schedule invariably changes. Somehow I’ve developed a knack for it.

On the other hand, I’d be a poor fit at an airline. While the monthly schedule would be attractive, the limited route network, large terminals, long lines, compensation issues, mergers and bankruptcies, unions, and seniority system are not for me.

So when someone tells me they’re interesting in flying professionally and want to know what it’s like… well, that’s a tough question to answer. A day in the life of a Alaskan fish spotter bears no resemblance whatsoever to that of a cruise pilot on an Airbus A380. The guy in the Gulfstream at Mach .80 isn’t in the same league as the one flying the blimp at 40 miles per hour.

I think the key to happiness as a professional pilot is to “know thyself”. Forget Hollywood films and dreams of financial riches. Those things are fleeting no matter what your career choice. Instead, explore the market to see what’s out there, and then pick something that fits your personality and natural talents. As my father once said, “Life is too short to do something you hate every day.”

So… where do you belong?

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.

The Man in the Arena

Friday, September 27th, 2013

Fight to keep your airport an airportIt is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

THE MAN IN THE ARENA, Theodore Roosevelt Excerpt from the speech “Citizenship In a Republic, April, 1910

I have been spending the week thinking about how best to remain engaged in the struggle to keep airports, airports.  How do we have the courage face the critic with the bullhorn, who points out every single misstep?  How do we steel ourselves against the inevitable bully who says, “You can’t do that”? How do we have the resolution to stay motivated and involved in the fight?

After watching psychological researcher Brene Brown’s recent lecture on daring greatly [http://www.oprah.com/oprahs-lifeclass/Oprah-and-Dr-Brene-Brown-on-Vulnerability-and-Daring-Greatly-Video], I found myself reading and re-reading the above quote by Theodore Roosevelt.  While arguably the longest sentence I have ever read, the heart of this speech is to try and keep trying.  In the face of the critic, the one who points out your shortcomings, who blasts you with disbelief, remain standing.

Those of us who work in airport and aviation advocacy know that we cannot give up and we know we will fall.  But as Roosevelt points out the man “who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who a the worst if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly”.

If daring greatly were a charge, how would you respond?  Think about your home airport.   If you dared greatly what would you do there?  How would you engage a community that is not sure of the airport’s worth?  How would you push forward safety enhancements?  If you weren’t afraid, what would you do? Think about yourself as an aviation lover.  How can you share that passion with another?  How can you give of yourself toward a greater good?

I have always taught my children that if you are going down, you should go down swinging.  Flight instructors say that to fly that airplane all the way down to the ground.  The take away here is Engagement. Action. Perseverance.  Roosevelt was talking about being an active citizen.  What if we applied active citizenry to aviation?  Would we be dusty, tired and bloody souls daring greatly?  Or are we the cold, timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. I choose the former.  Want to come with me?

 

Teach them to dare greatly!

Teach them to dare greatly!

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?

Gold in the gold country; an example of Fly it Forward!

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

Nestled in the foothills of the California’s Sierra Mountains is Columbia Airport O22. Boasting a beautifully manicured grass strip, fly-in campground, and an asphalt strip, Columbia is a picturesque fly-in destination in California. Columbia is an old gold mining town and is actually a state park. The town is within walking distance from the airport. Annually the airport hosts the Father’s Day Fly-In, I believe next year is the 47th annual. This popular weekend event has activities and accommodations for all ages. From the flour bombing and spot-landing contest to the tours of the air attack fire base, aircraft displays and an air show, a good time is had by all.

As those of us who put on airport events know, these events do not just magically happen. As Jim Thomas the airport manager of Columbia is keenly aware there is more gold in Columbia than what tourists in town are panning for. The true gold is the team of volunteers who assemble starting on Tuesday or Wednesday to make the Father’s Day Fly-In a safe, enjoyable and memorable experience for the thousands who attend. My husband Mitch and I have been volunteers at Columbia for the past five years. As with the other volunteers, we donate our time, fuel to get there. I commend Jim and his team for helping the volunteers to feel valued and respected. The volunteer experience starts with a warm greeting followed by a detailed meeting and distribution of our colorful volunteer t-shirts. We are able to sign up for duties that match our skill set. During our time as volunteers we receive snacks, water, pop and lunch at no cost. The free t-shirt and meals are a way that the airport manager helps the volunteers to feel noticed, nurtured and appreciated. At the end of the weekend we are all dog-tired. But it is a happy tired. Jim and I both know volunteers are the extended family of airports and aviation events.

Recently I was at an airport on the coast of California whose tower was threatened in the sequestration. After landing and heading to the airport restaurant I saw a sign that said ‘Help us save our control tower. Please get busy doing touch and goes.”

I thought this was a novel way to get attention to their plight. Since the California Pilots Association annual convention California Dreamin’ is coming up on October 18-19 and the mission of CalPilots is to save airports and inspire the love of flight, I decided to go to the flight school next to the restaurant to ask them to post a notice. I headed to the FBO and was met by a young girl at the counter. I introduced myself as the vice-president of Cal Pilots and asked if we could put up a post card to advertise our free aviation event. “I am sorry it is against our policy to post things.” I asked to speak with the manager, “I am sorry they are too busy to talk to you.” Then in exasperation I asked where I could post a notice. “I don’t know” was her response. I just shook my head and left.

You might ask what this has to do with volunteers. The short answer is that we all must band together to protect our airports, and inspire the love of flight. We can do that by helping each other with advocacy and promotion of events at our airports. Our fun events, like California Dreamin’ at San Luis Obispo airport, make them a good neighbor. When we bring the community to our events, such as the balloon glow or wine tasting, or burger fry and dance then we have won two battles. First we have invited everyone from our community we demystify the airport and make it an approachable place. Secondly we spark the ember of flight and of being a pilot.

The old saying is: if we aren’t part of the solution, we are part of the problem. Let’s all be part of the solution. Check out your “policies” and make sure that they are friendly and inclusive. We don’t need anyone thinking that aviation is an all male rich person’s club. Recognize the folks who volunteer at airports not for any monetary gain, but for the love of aviation, thank them for truly being golden.