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Author: Amy Laboda (page 1 of 4)

The gift of currency

If there is one thing golden about 14 CFR Part 61, in my opinion, it is the instrument IFR currency rules. Minimalist, though they may be (and hallelujah to that, I say) I am thankful to have them, not because they drive customers to flight schools for more training, or pilots to their cockpits for a bit of practice approach “therapy,” but because of all the rules in Part 61 of the regulations, these just make sense.

IFR flying is performed in a complex and fluid, constantly changing environment. Worse, it is an environment that we pilots have limited control over. You can pick your weather day, for instance, but you cannot make that day proceed as forecast, and anyone who flies IFR in the winter will tell you that unless it is a cloudless, cold, bright day-after-the-front kind of morning where you don’t need IFR, the odds that the weather will change before you get to your destination are, well, in Vegas-speak, house odds. (Real good.)

All of the above is why I time my instrument proficiency program with the seasons. I am keen to get an Instrument Proficiency check (IPC) in June and December. The June check coincides with the summer thunderstorm and permanent stationary front that seems to coagulate and stagnate in the Ohio River Valley, and is always in my way heading north or south that time of year. The December check is about the morning fog and multitude of stratus layers that are consistently found in my corner of the globe near the holidays.

Why bother with the IPC at all? Why not just get my instrument currency in during the year and self-monitor? Because bad habits are hard to see in the mirror. Yep, even for someone who has flown instruments since the early 80s and teaches these techniques routinely it is good protocol to have an objective eye look over my procedures and provide critical commentary. Frankly, I learn something new, either about my airplane, my instrumentation, the National Airspace System, or myself every IPC check. That alone is worth the price of the CFII for two hours.

RedbirdThe best part about the IPC is that you don’t need a good weather day to go fly. In fact, you don’t need to get airborne at all. The modern Advanced Flight Training Devices (ATDs) available at many flight schools make, perhaps better platforms than the actual airplane for the kind of flight scenarios that constitute a typical IPC. Today’s FAA authorized ATDs are ideal for testing your mettle in the most challenging and realistic in-flight emergency situations. An hour in “the box” sweating out realistic cascading electrical and vacuum failures with a knowledgeable flight instructor is worth six in the airplane with a couple covered instruments on a bright blue-sky day. Best of all, weather is highly unlikely to cause the lesson to cancel!

So in this season of gift-giving, think about offering yourself something that’s got real value: flight currency that’ll take you right through to the spring thaw. Fly safe out there!

Amy Laboda has been writing, editing and publishing print materials for more than 28 years on an international scale. From conception to design to production, Laboda helps businesses and associations communicate through various media with their clients, valued donors, or struggling students who aspire to earn scholarships and one day lead. An ATP-rated pilot with multiple flight instructor ratings, Laboda enjoys flying her two experimental aircraft and being active in the airpark community in which she lives.

No Politics in the Cockpit! (and how to eliminate other distractions of modern life)

Once upon a time I stumbled on a viral VCR tape (yes, I really am that old). It was of a lecture given by a certain Navy officer, a flight surgeon, Captain Frank Dully,  to fighter squadrons. The title of the lecture? “Sex and the Naval aviator.”  Maybe you know it?

In today’s climate the lecturer would most likely find himself in front of whatever board in the Pentagon resembles corporate human resources, but in those days the colorful language and irreverent references were designed to capture the attention of the fine young men (yes, only young men in those days) in the room and drive home the message that distraction in the the cockpit kills. Seriously, that was the whole message. Well, not quite.

Dully suggested a method for eliminating the distractions of  family life. He called it “compartmentalization,” and it is a technique of mentally boxing up everything unrelated to aviation in your brain and filing it away in a sealed “compartment.” That way your sterile cockpit starts at the airport, or wherever you do your final weather check and make your go / no-go decision regarding the flight. The rule persists through your preflight, cockpit checks, start-up, run-up and takeoff—right through the entire flight,  in fact.

Think about it. If you eliminate all distractions (yes, that means cellphones and internet connected devices keyed to apps not providing you with aviation information directly related to the flight) you increase the amount of brain-power available to you for processing the flight by, well, let’s just say logarithmically.  When you exercise this kind of discipline I can tell you from experience that the sensation is cleansing, and the flight? Honestly, it feels easier, even when it involves a complicated IFR clearance, diversions and an approach through the clouds. Humans are not natural multitaskers and just aviating, navigating and finally, communicating is enough to keep the gray matter in your frontal lobe lit up like the Vegas strip.

Sure, none of this information is new, however, as we roll into the holiday season fresh off a national election that was extremely polarizing and fraught with strife I feel it is my duty as a pilot and flight instructor to remind all of my fellow aviators heading out to visit family and friends that the cockpit is no place for political discussions, be they about national, local, or inter-familial personalities. Don’t cache the daily news on your iPad behind your JeppView app or Foreflight app for reading and discussion during cruise, don’t load up your phone with your favorite protest music (no matter how good it feels to scream the lyrics out loud in an empty cockpit). Don’t let your brain start to swirl around any external worries, from why the kids wouldn’t eat Aunt Ella’s french toast to how the offensive line of your favorite team is going to hold up against the best defense in the league tomorrow.

Focus on the flight and only the flight. Tell your passengers and co-pilot ahead of time that you are not ignoring them, rather you are adhering to a strict sterile cockpit protocol for the sake of their safety (you don’t need to tell them it is good for you, too). Trust me, the flight will be more relaxing, and you will find your skills ratcheting up a notch or two on the proficiency meter by mere focus alone. And that’s a really nice feeling.

Amy Laboda has been writing, editing and publishing print materials for more than 28 years on an international scale. From conception to design to production, Laboda helps businesses and associations communicate through various media with their clients, valued donors, or struggling students who aspire to earn scholarships and one day lead. An ATP-rated pilot with multiple flight instructor ratings, Laboda enjoys flying her two experimental aircraft and being active in the airpark community in which she lives.

Notes on Aviation from the Other Side of the Planet

New Zealand is a land of nearly 3,000 glaciers.

New Zealand is a land of nearly 3,000 glaciers.

Sometimes the best way to gain perspective is to step out of your rut and see the world from a different angle. I prescribe this philosophy upon myself annually, by taking a long holiday to some place far away from where I live. This year I think I pretty much pushed that to the limit (well, as far as our planet is concerned!). I left the August heat and humidity behind and visited New Zealand.

To be clear: I live in the western portion of the northern hemisphere. Where I ventured was the far eastern edge of the southern hemisphere. Standing at the southern tip of the south island of New Zealand on the granite remnants of an ancient volcanic cinder cone the wind buffeted me with gusts rolling in straight off the ice of Antarctica. Well, that’s what it felt like. The sun was brilliant and that air was fresh and tinged with the brine of the Southern Ocean. It was not hot.

It was also not prime flying season for general aviation, but that didn’t slow me down. In fact I like visiting places out

Gypsy Moth getting ready for flight.

Gypsy Moth getting ready for flight.

side of primetime. Why? Because in the winter, when the wind is howling and the clouds roil past low on the horizon, carrying sheets of rain with them, well, people have time to pull up close to the fireplace and chat. On those days I allowed my gracious New Zealand friends to take me exploring at the local general aviation airports throughout both the north and south islands. What I discovered was a treasure trove of de Havilland Aircraft products. Beavers, Gypsy Moths, Tiger Moths, Fox Moths, Chipmunks and even rarer, Doves.  Many of these aircraft were museum quality restorations. Most of them flew regularly on good VFR days.

I got lucky. Despite the sheets of rain, wind-whipped ice pelts, fog and other typical New Zealand winter weather woes, there were plenty of sunny days during the month I spent traveling the islands. I got a ride in a Beaver dressed up as a replica of the one that supported Sir Edmond Hilary as he crossed the Antarctic pole. A friend in Tauranga took me up in his de Havilland Chipmunk for an excellent flight along the bucolic coastline, and while I was up surveying the beach my husband hopped a ride in a picture-perfect Tiger Moth. Before the month was out we’d soared in Central Otago, hurling 500 meters (1500 ft) skyward via winch in the Central Otago Soaring Club’s Twin Astir sailplane (thanks guys for allowing us outsiders a little time in your great training bird).

Down at the southern tip of the south island, in Invercargill, we met a farmer-engineer with an entire metal shop disguised as a dilapidated milk barn. (His grass airfield is well-hidden, too, but with a sharp eye one can discern it from the rough pasture surrounding it.) He is building an RV-3 from plans, one sheet of metal, one blank spar at a time. The bovines that surround the barn and its unlikely contents? They are steers being raised for market, and they sport names such as Carburetor, Left-wing tank and Magneto.

In the waning days of the trip, while walking a track through a valley marsh near Glenorchy, I heard the drone of a single turbine engine and craned my neck to catch sight of an airplane I didn’t recognize as it’s pilot dumped a load of skydivers and flipped into a two turn spin to hasten his descent (and have a little fun) back to the nearby grass airfield to pick up the next load of thrill seekers.

We decided to poke around that airport, too, and were welcomed by the pilot, little more than a teen, taking his lunch break. His airplane, the Fletcher P-750 XSTOL, a low-wing, single-engine turbine powered beast with lanky fixed landing gear is a workhorse in New Zealand, typically seen hauling skydivers or spraying crops (top-dressing, they call it). The design is loosely based on a John Thorpe product and is a home-grown product

A New Zealand grown product, the Fletcher, disgorges skydivers.

A New Zealand grown product, the Fletcher, disgorges skydivers.

produced by PAC Fletcher company of Hamilton, New Zealand.  There was room up front for just one pilot, and plenty of space in the back for a half-dozen skydivers. No seats back there, but really, those are overrated in a skydiving operation. We thanked the pilot for the aircraft “tour” and got out of his way as he finished up his sandwich and consulted with his dispatcher over the next load of adrenaline junkies ready for a thrill. He’d talked with us about his ambitions to fly heavy iron one day, but it was easy to see he was having plenty of fun flying right where he was.

If I took away anything from my holiday on the other side of the planet it was this: general aviation is alive and vibrant in New Zealand. The country doesn’t have the vastness of  Australia, but it certainly has the scenery to rival anywhere on earth. It’s aviation infrastructure is strong and friendly to general aviation, and its heritage is rich. If you are heading anywhere in that direction, I’d recommend at the very least a stop off. Stay long enough for the rain to let off and the clouds to clear. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Amy Laboda has been writing, editing and publishing print materials for more than 28 years on an international scale. From conception to design to production, Laboda helps businesses and associations communicate through various media with their clients, valued donors, or struggling students who aspire to earn scholarships and one day lead. An ATP-rated pilot with multiple flight instructor ratings, Laboda enjoys flying her two experimental aircraft and being active in the airpark community in which she lives.

Life in the Flock

Face it, for us pilots life is better in the flock. I’m not talking about flying in formation here (that’s a whole blog post on its own). What I’m talking about, truly, is the flock mentality.

From the very beginnings of human flight pilots have enjoyed bonding together over their flying machines, comparing notes, telling tales (some taller than others) and sharing knowledge. Bonding together into groups with like interests, as general aviation pilots do when they join AOPA, has helped keep our flying freedom here in the U.S., and helped to expand it abroad. The power of the flock is probably most evident in recent changes in laws, including the Pilot’s Bill of Rights, and its successor, the Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2.

Rights, of course, come with responsibilities, and that is another realm where the flock mentality shines. Pilots are good at self-policing. It comes down to this: we don’t want people to hurt themselves or others in aircraft because, frankly, it makes the general public wary of general aviation. And you do not want to mess with the good will of the general public. Without it we risk losing public airports, a public ATC, the right to build and maintain our own aircraft, and quite possibly, affordable private flying altogether.

Grouping ourselves into nonprofit organizations that work hard to keep the public up-to-date on the positive points of having a free and affordable general aviation community is key. There is power in numbers that we simply don’t have as individual fliers. Here are a two current examples: making sure the general public knows that a private pilot in a light airplane was a part of bringing aid to flood victims in Louisiana; or the “feel good” story I saw the other night about a Pilots ‘n Paws flight from flooded regions to my state makes a difference. Every time I hear of an Angel Flight taking an ambulatory cancer patient for specialized treatment in a light airplane I smile, because I know that is the right kind of publicity.

On that note I applaud my local TV station each time it covers an aircraft accident where the reporter states in a reverent tone that all the occupants of the airplane walked away safe and sound. You and I know that happens in more than 90 percent of aircraft accidents. It is nice when they show that airplanes (and good piloting skills) can protect passengers the way modern automobiles can. Yes, there are still tragedies, but look at the most recent AOPA Nall Report—that flock mentality is paying off with safer operations.

All that aside, there is one other reason I am drawn to the flock mentality of aviators. It’s the camaraderie.  No matter where in the world you are from, no matter what your mother tongue, airplanes draw people together. This past July I was at EAA’s AirVenture convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, gathering “intel” for a trip I am planning to the far side of the globe. I strolled over to the “Internationals'” tent and asked a couple key questions of the kind volunteer manning the desk, and left him my contact information. It did not take a whole lot more effort than that to begin learning about the aviation culture in the country I am planning to visit. Now I’ve got a list of people who have built aircraft that are similar to mine, and I’ve got every intention of making contact once I arrive in country.

My guess is those contacts will lead to an excellent orientation into the aviation culture of that far-away place, and, most likely, a deeper appreciation for the culture we’ve forged right here in my flock at home.

Amy Laboda has been writing, editing and publishing print materials for more than 28 years on an international scale. From conception to design to production, Laboda helps businesses and associations communicate through various media with their clients, valued donors, or struggling students who aspire to earn scholarships and one day lead. An ATP-rated pilot with multiple flight instructor ratings, Laboda enjoys flying her two experimental aircraft and being active in the airpark community in which she lives.

On the Best of Days

Sometimes you just hit it right. That’s the way I felt from the moment I saw the seven day forecast a week before my long cross-country up the east coast to visit family.

I knew when I saw the way the High and Low pressure gradients were setting up that there would be a chance of a south-to-north flow along my more than 1,200 mile routing. There could be a cold front to my west—a potential problem—but according to the forecast it was going to be held at bay by a strong summer high pressure system floating off Cape Cod.

Of course, looking at a six or seven day forecast is tantamount to asking a soothsayer with a crystal ball to predict the weather for you. Yeah, yeah, forecasts have improved. Still, not that much on the long run. My happy spot for weather doesn’t start warming up until 36 hours out. That’s when I begin to believe that the weather will be as the experts have forecast. Even then, I’m a skeptic.

This year we got lucky. We saddled up the bird the night before just after the daily deluge of thunderstorms lost its bluster and faded to a steamy drizzle in the twilight. And the next morning? Clear, dark skies greeted us on our 6 am departure, with just a faint glow of dawn beginning to shine from behind clouds stacked up at the Atlantic shoreline. A typical tropical sunrise.

A typical tropical Florida summer sunrise.

A typical tropical Florida summer sunrise.

And that tailwind? It started slow, just a knot or two for the first hour and a half as we sliced across the state and out briefly off the Georgia coastline. By the time we were within 30 minutes of our fuel stop in North Carolina we had nearly five knots nudging us along.

Early morning along the wild Georgia coast.

Early morning along the wild Georgia coast.

After a brief stretch, refuel and refreshment stop we headed right back up to altitude, hoping for the best. Across the flats of eastern Virginia the wind-gods smiled: the groundspeed popped up. There were 12 delightful knots on our tail.

Slicing between restricted areas on the Del Mar Peninsula it hit us: we could probably make it all the way to our final destination. A couple of quick calculations confirmed it. And then the wind picked up! By the time we overflew the busy JFK New York airspace we were humming along with 24 knots on our rear. Whoo Hoo! We’d joined the 200 knot cruise club for the morning!

Within the hour we were rolling out on Runway 28 a KOWD. What a flight, what a day. Wish they were all that way. We’ve got at least five legs on our trip, and the odds of perfect VFR for each leg? Interestingly enough, better than even (it is summer, after all). We are also patient, budgeting in a day of slop at every stop (this day slides when we don’t use it, so we really only need about three slop days in the whole trip).

Of course the final tool in my flying chest is IFR currency. That means I can fly in the clouds if I need to do so. I’d recommend that tool to any and every GA pilot with an aircraft capable of IFR flight.

See you on the ramp!

Amy Laboda has been writing, editing and publishing print materials for more than 28 years on an international scale. From conception to design to production, Laboda helps businesses and associations communicate through various media with their clients, valued donors, or struggling students who aspire to earn scholarships and one day lead. An ATP-rated pilot with multiple flight instructor ratings, Laboda enjoys flying her two experimental aircraft and being active in the airpark community in which she lives.

Into Thin Air: A problem even in low country

I live in low country. My airport is a measly 15 feet above sea level, not low enough to be subject to flooding in heavy storms, but plenty low. You’d think that means that my airplane sees peak performance on takeoff all the time. Well, maybe on a standard atmosphere day (59 degrees F. / 15 degrees C. and 29.92 Hg / 1012 hPa, with 50% humidity). Unfortunately its been a while since we’ve seen those temperatures.

Most summer mornings I awake at 0600 to an outside air temperature of 77 F / 26 C, barometric pressure around 29.80 and the humidity? At 96% you might as well breathe water as air. What does that do to my aircraft’s performance? Skunks it. Seriously,  density altitude does a number on my high performance machine—and just about everyone else’s, too. (I say “just about” because a few of you out there fly turbocharged or turbo-normalized aircraft, and they cope better with density altitude, up to a point.)

With temperatures and humidity like we have, my airplane performs more like it is at 1,600 MSL, and that is first thing in the morning.  It doesn’t take long for the sun to cook up the air to temperatures approaching 100 F / 38 C, more than doubling the density altitude effect and making it perform as if we were above 3,000 MSL.

The FAA publishes telephone numbers for direct contact with AWOS/ASOS computers nationwide.

The FAA publishes telephone numbers for direct contact with AWOS/ASOS computers nationwide.

This is because hot, wet air behaves precisely like the thin air at altitude: it is tough for the engine to breathe (heck, I find it tough to breathe!). With molecules of air farther apart and separated by H2O, even the flying surfaces are impacted, resulting in longer take off rolls and anemic climb out performance.

How does one cope? First: calculate. Density altitude calculators are built-in to every flight planning software package worth its salt (even NOAA publishes one here). Don’t have one of those handy? Call the AWOS or ATIS at your airport (they have local telephone numbers, you can find them here).  If you are already at the airplane well, just tune in and listen. No weather reporting at your airport? Just about every airplane has an outside temperature gauge somewhere (your oil temperature will be at ambient temperature before engine start). As for the humidity? If you are sweating on the ramp and you aren’t in Yuma, Arizona, you can guess it is well above 50%. Just figure it in at 90% and you’ll be safe.

Now, pull out the performance charts from the Pilots Operating Handbook that you keep in the airplane (you’ve got to have one, it’s the law). Run your finger across the chart per the instructions and it should spit out a required takeoff roll distance. Is your runway long enough? The climb chart will predict your performance—then you have to ask yourself: is that climb rate adequate (remember, you’ll be going up into even thinner air, so that initial climb performance is likely to deteriorate)?

In my corner of the country side most significant obstacles can be out climbed  in the first 300 feet of altitude. Even at 300 fpm climb rate if I’m patient I can get away from terrafirma on a hot afternoon—that is, if I haven’t packed the back of the airplane with passengers and bags to the ceiling then loaded it up with full fuel. These are all variables I can change. I could also opt out of the flight, rescheduling it for a cooler time of day.

And what if I risk it and try the take off?  Look at the NTSB database (www.ntsb.gov). Search density altitude and you’ll find a host of general aviation accidents where high DA is listed as “probable cause.” Many occurred in the summer, often from high elevation airports. Nearly every time the aircraft was overloaded for the conditions and was forced into the air by the pilot. He or she managed to get it flying in the cushion of ground effect, but once the airplane pulled away from that crutch it was stall / spin time. A few pilots managed to resist the overwhelming compulsion to pull harder on the control yoke and did the right thing, which is to PUSH the nose over to a flying airspeed and ride the airplane back into ground effect and onto the ground in a controlled crash. Not pretty, but survivable.

A few years ago I had my first experience in a Redbird simulator. The instructor with me set up the hot/high demo, where I attempted to fly a Cessna 172 off a mountain valley grass strip on a hot afternoon with no wind. Honestly? It was awful. Even with my best short field technique I felt the airplane sinking as I pulled away from ground effect and I instinctively pushed the nose over, pulled the power and jockeyed the airplane to a landing and a ground loop to avoid the trees at the end of the strip. Not pretty at all, but we did manage to keep life and hardware intact.

With practice I learned what that Cessna could and could not do on that little back country strip. It was an education. Want to try it for yourself? Redbird is partnering with the National Association of Flight Instructors and the Experimental Aircraft Association at EAA AirVenture this summer to bring attendees the Pilot Proficiency Center. There you can sign up to brush the rust off or try skills you’ve yet to master in one of 12  Redbird LD simulators (Advanced Aviation Training Devices). The building is air conditioned and the sim instructors are volunteers. And yes, you can log it as  flight sim time with an instructor sign off.

Give it your best. You’ll impress yourself.

Amy Laboda has been writing, editing and publishing print materials for more than 28 years on an international scale. From conception to design to production, Laboda helps businesses and associations communicate through various media with their clients, valued donors, or struggling students who aspire to earn scholarships and one day lead. An ATP-rated pilot with multiple flight instructor ratings, Laboda enjoys flying her two experimental aircraft and being active in the airpark community in which she lives.

The Day After the Holiday: Flying Home Safely

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!

Amy Laboda has been writing, editing and publishing print materials for more than 28 years on an international scale. From conception to design to production, Laboda helps businesses and associations communicate through various media with their clients, valued donors, or struggling students who aspire to earn scholarships and one day lead. An ATP-rated pilot with multiple flight instructor ratings, Laboda enjoys flying her two experimental aircraft and being active in the airpark community in which she lives.

Say again?

Cockpit noise is far more than just a nuisance. 

I live and work at a small airport. That makes me an expert on noise. I’ve heard it all, from the thop-thop of helicopter blades beating against thick morning air to the supersonic roar of propeller blades on a Cessna pulling it skyward; from the hum of GE turbofans on takeoff to the gentle chirps of rubber on asphalt, followed by a deep roar as the pilot hits the thrust reversers.

And that’s just what I hear standing outside my office. External airport noise, real as it is, generally pales in comparison to the hearing-damaging decibels most of us encounter when our ears are unprotected in the cockpit of a small piston- or turbine-powered propeller airplane or helicopter. I’ve been subjecting myself to these kinds of noises, both on the ramp and in the air for neigh on 45 years, first as a passenger, then as a professional pilot and I can tell you, hearing loss in our profession is real. And the fatigue that comes from being subjected to such loud and constant sound all day or night long is real, too.

Let me quantify this for you. How loud is too loud? Permanent hearing damage can occur from sounds louder than 85 dB, and physical pain occurs at around 125 dB. You decibel_exposure_chartcan burst an eardrum at 140 dB—a level reached by a jet engine revving up on the ramp as its pilot throttles up to taxi out for takeoff. The graphic at right shows how much a human ear can stand before damage. OSHA requires workers exposed to noise levels higher than 85 dB to use hearing protection equipment.

OSHA is not being overprotective. I fly one of the noiser airplanes out there, an RV-10 with a two-blade propeller. Two-blade propellers are longer than three blade varieties, and have been documented as making more noise. I’ve also got fixed gear, and no sound insulation (we never even got around to putting in a headliner). Measured decibels on takeoff from inside the cabin are—yeah I’m not going to tell you. It’s bad.

Our solution to the noise problem is pretty modern and probably as lightweight as you can get: we opted for high quality active noise canceling headsets. To cancel the lower-frequency portions of the in-flight noise, noise-cancelling headphones incorporate a microphone that measures ambient sound, then generate a waveform that is the exact negative of the ambient sound, and finally, they mix it with any audio signal. Most noise-cancelling headsets in the consumer market generate the noise-cancelling waveform with analogue technology.

Digital processing is the next frontier, and the realm of the high-end headsets. The most sophisticated ANR headsets use digital sound mapping to customize their noise cancellation. Bose A20, Lightspeed Zulu PFX, Sennheiser S1, AKG—these headsets demand a premium, but put them on and fly with them in a noisy cockpit such as mine, and you’ll understand why.

aloftTo prevent higher-frequency noise from reaching the ear, most noise-cancelling headphones depend on soundproofing and an excellent fit around the ear. Higher-frequency sound has a shorter wavelength, and is tougher to cancel out. In-the-ear headsets such as Clarity Aloft can claim to efficiently dull the higher-frequency sounds of wind over the fuselage (its louder than you’d think), and generally can do so without the need for active noise cancellation. On long trips it is nice not to have an over-the-ear headset squeezing the stuffing out of my brain. That said, a lot of people don’t like the feel of earplug-type headsets in the ear canal. And if the fit isn’t perfect the noise seeps in. For a price some of these headsets can be fitted with custom shaped ear plugs, but that requires an audiologist to fit them, and a lab to make them.

There are some people who insist that headsets are not the only answer. They spend a lot of time and money insulating their light aircraft cockpits from sound. Today’s lighter weight materials can, if properly applied beneath the floor panels, side panels, bulkheads and headliner, soften external low and high frequency sounds to bring the level at cruise down below 80 dB, but not much lower.

I’m not a fan of the extra weight and complexity that such sound deadening material can add to an aircraft (complexity comes in if you have a certified aircraft: think field approvals and STCs here). I’d rather spend that money on lightweight, high-end digital ANR headsets to connect everyone in my cockpit. I put that money into a decent audio selector panel and intercom, with the ability to isolate the pilot from the conversation in the cabin, when necessary. While I’m isolated and able to communicate clearly with ATC, my companions can talk amongst themselves or even listen to music during the flight. Everyone is happy, and their hearing stays intact.

 

 

Amy Laboda has been writing, editing and publishing print materials for more than 28 years on an international scale. From conception to design to production, Laboda helps businesses and associations communicate through various media with their clients, valued donors, or struggling students who aspire to earn scholarships and one day lead. An ATP-rated pilot with multiple flight instructor ratings, Laboda enjoys flying her two experimental aircraft and being active in the airpark community in which she lives.

Back to Flying Basics, Aided by a Box

Flight training devices can save pilots time and money, if they are just willing to give them a try.

I’ve been teaching people how to fly airplanes for 30 years now, and at this point people tell me I’m pretty good at it. One thing I learned early was that the cockpit environment is a horrible classroom. It’s noisy, full of distractions, occasionally unpredictable and, if the airplane is not tied down with the engine shut off, it is constantly moving through space-time.

This is a challenge to the senses of your typical flight student in the first few lessons of any flight training program. Frankly, any sane human being is scared of it, at first, though few would admit to it.

And while we’re confessing, here’s another little talked-of industry secret: flight instruction is a life-and-death struggle for your typical certificated flight instructor (CFI), who has to keep the airplane from killing anyone, all the while avoiding violating any number of hundreds of FAA regulations. We do this as we simultaneously teach a planned lesson and transfer knowledge to the aforementioned overwhelmed student. Try it sometime. It is harder than it looks.

Ground flight simulation evolved from these realizations. On the ground, in a flight training device, CFIs can better control how any flight lesson is going to play out. Why? Because they hold most of the cards; no sudden ATC amendments to lesson plans, no unexpected flashing alternator-out lights, no tilted, giving up the ghost gyros mid-lesson (unless he chooses that) and no unanticipated airspace restrictions or weather anomalies. Total control. Ah….every teacher I know, no matter of what discipline or age group, will tell you that really does feel good.

The original Link Trainer was created in 1929 out of the need for a safe way to teach new pilots how to fly by sole reference to instruments on the aircraft panel. Ed Link used his knowledge of pumps, valves and bellows (honed building organs in his day-job) to create a flight simulator that responded to the pilot’s controls and gave an accurate reading on the instrument panel. These simulators were little blue plywood boxes with real gyro instruments inside and the reason they moved is because they had to so that those gyros in the instruments would work as they did during true flight. Our national hero, Jimmy Doolittle, was a pioneer of the basic instrument scanning techniques we still use today, and he was one of the first of thousands of pilots to use a Link Trainer, too.

“Please don’t put me in that box,” many a trainee begged. It was a tight fit for the big guys. Dark. Hot. Smelly if the pilot before you perspired heavily or tended toward motion sickness. Claustrophobia isn’t necessarily innate—for a lot of us it was an “earned” malady. No wonder few civilian pilots wanted to use them.

Today we don’t need motion or small, dark boxes to simulate flight. Even companies such as Frasca and Redbird Simulations, which make motion simulators, would agree (they make fixed flight training devices, too). The modern computer programs teaching flight by reference to aircraft panel instruments range from hokey and video game-like, but pictorially effective, to extremely sophisticated flight training devices that are accurate in control feel. And they are affordable, as long as you are not looking for a device on which you can officially log time (those start at $3,000 USD and range up).

Even with the cost of a flight instructor factored in, practice with a basic flight training device can save flight students and wizened old-timers alike time and money. And best of all, flight simulation lessons aren’t dependent on outside weather conditions!

I swear by the efficiency of teaching basic flight by instrument skills and airport instrument approach procedures in flight training devices. That said, I would not tell a pilot to use a flight training device for learning or proficiency without flight instructor supervision. Why? Because bad habits are easy to form and hard to shake. A flight instructor can quietly analyze your instrument scan, flow use and checklist use, and provide you with tips and short-cuts that will make managing the cockpit environment during flight both more efficient and safer.

 

Amy Laboda has been writing, editing and publishing print materials for more than 28 years on an international scale. From conception to design to production, Laboda helps businesses and associations communicate through various media with their clients, valued donors, or struggling students who aspire to earn scholarships and one day lead. An ATP-rated pilot with multiple flight instructor ratings, Laboda enjoys flying her two experimental aircraft and being active in the airpark community in which she lives.

GA pilots evaluate ADS-B options

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?

Amy Laboda has been writing, editing and publishing print materials for more than 28 years on an international scale. From conception to design to production, Laboda helps businesses and associations communicate through various media with their clients, valued donors, or struggling students who aspire to earn scholarships and one day lead. An ATP-rated pilot with multiple flight instructor ratings, Laboda enjoys flying her two experimental aircraft and being active in the airpark community in which she lives.
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