Menu

Author: Rob Mark (page 1 of 2)

A Signpost Up Ahead

A380 JetwhineWhat a blast I’ve had the past year here on the Opinion Leaders blog. But if we’re opinion leaders, you our audience, deserve a pat on the back for being Reader Leaders. I’ve been truly encouraged and inspired by how many of you took the time to offer words of support to some of my stories, as well as comments when you thought I was off my rocker. OK, maybe I didn’t like those quite as much, but it all comes with the territory.

This year I managed to share a few tricks of the trade to improve your stick-and-rudder skills in any aircraft, as well as a few ideas to encourage the next generation of aviation geeks to follow in our footsteps and even had a few questions for you about how I should deal with a few ruffled feathers between ATC and me. Of course there was that sad story last summer about the loss of my friend Jeremy Monnett at Oshkosh just weeks before AirVenture.

But that was 2015.

With 2016 waiting just around the corner, I think it’s time for me to bow out and offer another writer an opportunity to share their perspectives on aviation while I get back to my own blog at Jetwhine.com and The Airplane Geeks Show.

Before I leave, I’d like to ask you to take a look at our new venture, the On the Mark video series we’ve created with the folks at AviationPros.com. If you enjoy these short pieces, I hope you’ll share the link with your friends and even consider subscribing.OTM Logo 1

Come on now, there’s no eye rolling in aviation for you Reader Leaders … you can handle great content from both the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog AND On the Mark.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and all the other holiday greetings of the season.

See you around the blogosphere in 2016. Don’t forget, your questions about all things aviation are always welcome at [email protected].

Warm regards,

Rob Mark

 

 

Encouraging People to Replace Us

Finding young people to grab the reins from us old guys in aviation is a bit like the weather … everyone talks about why we need to do something, but not everyone is clear about how to actually make that happen. Certainly doing nothing is the wrong answer. So what can we do to increase our odds of connecting all the right people together?

NBAA 2015 yoproAt the recent NBAA convention, the association offered a number of us an opportunity to mingle with a hundred or so officially named Young Professionals who’d volunteered to listen to us more-experienced (secret code for older) industry folks detail how we started while also delivering a bit of unsolicited advice for job seekers.

The NBAA team was spearheaded by the association’s Sierra Grimes with Brett Ryden from Southcomm’s Aviation Pros.com leading a group of his editors who together created an hour’s worth of practical education at the show’s Innovation Zone. The panel was evenly split between ladies and gents … myself, Jo Damato from NBAA, Sarah Barnes from Paragon Aviation and Textron Aviation’s senior VP of Customer Service Brad Thress. Our moderator was writer Lowen Baumgarten.

Stage members spent a few minutes detailing their experiences, but since we were there to answer questions, I was antsy to interact with the audience. Over the course of the hour there were perhaps seven or eight good ones, but I wanted more. I probably shouldn’t have.

Reality kicked in for me about 20 minutes after we began as I realized that some of what a number of young people had told me the night before was really true … networking is not an innate skill, not even close. I’d seen this kind of thing before too. Universities apparently assume graduates automatically absorb networking skills out of thin air I guess. Continue reading

When Good Enough Just Isn’t

kern

Tony Kern, CEO of Convergent Performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

ATC and pilots: When to keep your mouth shut and when to speak up

This sounds a bit pathetic, but most of the professional pilots I’ve known in my life have been smart alecks, me included … always ready with an opinion, whether anyone asked for it or not. We’re all control freaks to some degree I suppose, not an earth-shattering revelation of course, because those are the kind of people you want around when it’s time to grab the controls and say, “I’ve got it.”

Sometimes knowing when not to grab the microphone in the cockpit though, can be just as important, especially for me when it comes to ATC at least. I spent a decade of my aviation life in a control tower and behind a radar scope, which was just enough to qualify me – by my standards of course – as an expert.

MSN

Madison Wi (MSN)

Case in point to grabbing that microphone occurred at Madison, Wis., a few weeks ago with a student in the Cirrus. We were VFR in right traffic for Runway 31 and requesting multiple “option approaches,” the ones that leave it to us to decide whether we’ll make a full stop, stop and go, low approach, or whatever might be left. The long runway, 18-36, was closed for construction and some itinerant traffic was using Runway 3-21. BTW, tower assigned us Runway 31 which I did wonder about with traffic on Runway 3, but then since every controller runs their traffic patterns a little differently I thought no more about it.

After the third or fourth option approach, the tower cleared us to land on Runway 31, but never explained why. On touch down, I simply forgot and told the student “let’s go” and he added full power and reduced the flap setting. As soon as we broke ground the “cleared to land” part flashed in my mind. Maybe 100 feet in the air, the local controller in MSN tower firmly reminds me that when he says cleared to land, he means cleared to land. I really tried not to respond, but of course I did, “Sorry about that. My fault. But 18/36 is closed right?” as in, so what was the real problem other than my failure to follow orders. I honestly didn’t know. Someone in the tower keyed the mic as if they were going to say something and then decided against it. We landed about 15 minutes later and the ground controller reminded me that I had earlier been cleared to land on Runway 31 and that they really need me to follow instructions in the future. Of course you know I keyed the microphone and asked again what the issue was other than blowing the order … “Did I conflict with some other aircraft?” “No, but you were cleared to land, not for an option,” he said. Since the other pilot was becoming uncomfortable with the exchange I just said, “Roger. Thanks,” and let it go. After all, I did blow it. I just would have liked to have known a bit more, but I decided to just let it go.

ENW

Kenosha Wi. (ENW)

Jump ahead a month or so and I’m again acting as CFI in the traffic pattern at Kenosha, Wis., this time having watched the other pilot I’m flying with land out of a really nicely handled circling instrument approach. We decide to stay in the VFR traffic pattern for a bit so the controller in the tower – obviously working both tower and ground himself – taxies us to Runway 7 Left. As we taxi, I hear him chatting with a Citabria pilot he’s sending to Runway 7 Right. About now I became occupied watching my pilot prepare for another takeoff.

Some part of my brain must have heard the tower clear the Citabria for takeoff from the right runway with a left turn out, just before he cleared us from the left runway, but it remained one of those distant notes in my brain until we were about 200 feet in the air. That’s when I saw the taildragger cutting across our path from the right. I instinctively told the pilot I was flying with to head right behind the Citabria as the ENW controller mentioned him as “traffic ahead and to our right.” He was a lot more than that. If we hadn’t turned, it would have been close.

The pilot flying with me looked at me in wonderment as I just shook my head and keyed the microphone … “nice tower.” No response.

I rang the tower manager a few days later on the phone because I wanted him to know how close I thought we would have been had we not banked right after takeoff. I told him I thought the ENW tower controller just plum forgot about the taildragger off the right when he cleared us for takeoff. I got it. It happens. I just wanted to see if I’d missed something here too.

Sad to say but the tower manager at Kenosha never rang back. This is where it becomes tough for me. Should I ring the tower manager again and risk sounding like a know-it-all? I make mistakes too. What do you think? Let me know at [email protected].

Networking 101: A Very Necessary Class

Meeting and staying in touch with the people who can help us personally and professionally – networking – is much like discussing the weather; everyone talks about it, but hardly anyone does anything about it, or more succinctly, most people have no idea how to network successfully.

Aviation’s no different from any other profession though. The best opportunities go to the people who seek out people who are connected to the kinds of jobs they’d like to have. Then you just, well … connect with them and ask the right questions to help you land the job you want.

OK, so maybe it’s not all quite that simple, but as I mentioned in last month’s story about mentoring, industry newbies need to start somewhere and the best way to be successful is to met people who are further up your ladder. Like a kid peering through the window of a candy store clearly knows what they want when they see it, a future aviator, technician, airport manager, or any of another dozen other jobs, needs to begin by hanging out at the airport, or at least at the place where airport people hang out like conventions or organization meetings.

Biz CardsWhat stops people these days of electronic communications is that many young people have no clue how to break the ice with the people they don’t know. Here are a few tips. First realize that like you, everyone started out as a new kid somewhere along the line. Of course, while most professionals are willing to help someone searching for answers, not everyone will. That’s human nature. The point is not to take a rebuff personally. Approaching a pilot at an FBO or a maintenance technician in a shop and being told they don’t have time to talk might mean simply that. You’ve caught them on a bad day or just as they’re walking out the door. It happens. Move on to someone else.

But since I’m a pilot and a writer, let’s assume you want to focus on a pilot career and are wondering how to start the conversation. Assuming you’re at an airport and you notice a crewmember in uniform standing around, the key is to take a deep breath, walk up to them and say, “Excuse me. I really want to fly professionally and I wondered if I can ask you a couple of questions?” You just broke the ice. If they say yes, introduce yourself and ask away. But be respectful of the person’s time. Ten minutes is plenty unless the pilot offers more. And remember, it’s a conversation. That involves listening, not simply talking.

Ending the conversation can seem a bit tricky, but it doesn’t need to be if you’re prepared. Long before your approach your first pilot, or mechanic or air traffic controller, go spend $20 and print some business cards with your contact info and maybe a snappy marketing phrase like “airline pilot wannabe,” or “future aviation maintenance technician.” Then when you say thanks for this first conversation, offer a card and ask for theirs in return. A week or so later, send a nice e-mail that says, “Thanks again for the career advice in the FBO lobby at PDK. I’m always on the lookout for that next job, so if you hear of anyone looking for someone like me with 800 hours and 125 multi, I’d appreciate you letting me know. Thanks, Rob.”

These days, I’ve found an easy way to maintain my contact database is to carry it with me all the time, hence the value of a good smart phone since it’s always in my pocket. I use an app called “Sam Card,” to scan in people’s business cards as soon as I receive them too. The app allow me to add in comments such as, “This is the NetJets pilot I met in Aug., 2015 at PDK,” so I have some context when it’s time again to reach out.

Finally, I have always found that ending that first conversation well is critical to that long-term value. I’d try to end with a good question like, “If you had it to do all over again, would you still pick flying as a career?” If they say no, ask why. Another session ender could be, “What do you think is the best thing/worst mistake you made in your career?” Sometimes I Make people rally think and they offer some incredible advice. Then there are those who are pressed for time and might say something like, “I really need to think on that one. Why don’t you follow up with me next week and I’ll have a better answer.”

And so ends your first day of practical networking 101, a skill everyone needs but few pull off successfully in their career search. Good luck. Feel free to e-mail me at [email protected] with your questions.

 

Can a Mentor Really Help?

EAA1Where better to think about mentors – people willing to share their industry expertise with newbies – than as I unpack my car at AirVenture 2015. This place is crawling with mentors.

One of the secrets to success, of course, is connecting capable mentors with the people who need a little mentoring … maybe even quite a bit of mentoring. Since this is my 50th year as an EAA show attendee, allow me to share a few tips.

First, I think almost everyone can benefit from the help of a good mentor. There is simply no reason an aspiring mechanic, pilot, air traffic controller, or anyone else with a keen interest in aviation, should fall into the same dark holes the rest of us have over the decades. Allow us to help you steer clear.

A good mentor listens and makes suggestions to help a student overcome most any hurdle, whether they’re struggling with a particularly troublesome knowledge course, a too-often empty checkbook or the search for a cure to a bad case of the, “I’ll never get this …” We’ve all been stuck at one time or another by “Now what do I do,” too.

The only difference between long-time career people and you is that somehow we’ve already figured out the way around some of the obstacles that been dropped in front of us … and so can you, if you ask for help.

Assuming you’re receptive to the idea, finding a good mentor is often where associations like AOPA, EAA and Women in Aviation can help. If you’re on the road to becoming a professional pilot, for instance, check out ProPilot World for advice from men and women who’ve already been successful climbing various rungs of the career ladder.

mentorIt’s important to realize that a student shares some of the responsibility for a successful relationship, because it’s a bit like dating. It’s apparent pretty quickly when everything clicks and almost as quickly apparent when the chemistry’s not right.

Look for a mentor who’s patient and curious about your life, your story and your goals. Connect with someone who’s more interested in telling war stories than offering help with resources to pass an FAA knowledge test, for example, and you probably have the wrong person. Pose a question that brings only a shrug of shoulders rather than help finding the answer and trust me, it’s just not a good fit. Say thanks to the person and move on to someone else.

I think the key to success in any career is knowing when to ask for help and then being relentless until you find it. I know I’ve only scratched the surface here, so if you find yourself stuck along the way, e-mail me and I’ll help. [email protected]

Rob Mark is a Chicago-based business-aviation pilot, flight instructor and journalist. He publishes the award-winning industry blog, Jetwhine.com and spent 10 years of his life as an air traffic controller for the FAA. He claims to have been lucky enough to know a couple of great mentors in his life and believes he could have had more if he’d only asked.

When Aviation Claims a Friend

MonnettI’ve struggled all month debating whether or not to write this story.

We opinion leaders are supposed to be writing stories to capture the imagination of potential pilots or past aviators who’ve been away from the cockpit too long. Our stories are meant to encourage people.

But this tale is not one of those. I’m hoping if I tell it well enough, that some new or returning pilot will remember an important element of flying before they ever face a similar situation.

It’s still way too early to figure out what happened to the Sonex Sport Acro that claimed the life of my friend Jeremy Monnett earlier this month off the departure end of runway 9 at Oshkosh’s Wittman Regional airport. He was out showing a new mechanic a bit about an airplane Jeremy knew pretty well which perplexed me a bit when I heard about the accident.

At first I thought perhaps Jeremy had been flying some new Sonex creation that had possibly gotten away from him or that perhaps the weather had closed in around him or well, I don’t know to be honest. Neither of those turned out to be the case. The tower controller had his back turned when the crash occurred and so far there don’t seem to have been any witnesses. I do know he took off from the runway 9 intersection at runway 13 which probably gave him about 3,000 feet for takeoff. One source told me the propeller was found in tact which might mean the engine was not turning at the time of impact. More than that needs to wait for the NTSB report.

Early in June I was attending an aviation safety conference at EuroControl in Brussels when I first learned of my friend’s death. As I read the e-mail it was a bit surreal, as if I were really reading a story about someone else, a faceless name … one of those people we hear about who, gathered together each year, create the list of GA fatalities I write about.

This time though I knew the face and the man quite well in fact. Jeremy was just 40 actually, a kid to me, yet he’d already made a name for the company Sonex Aircraft that his mom and dad had founded long before they moved it to Oshkosh decades ago. I was still in Europe when the memorial took place for Jeremy at EAA’s Eagle Hangar, an event I’m told brought more than 2,000 mourners for this young man and the wife, two boys and other family members he left behind.

This accident reminded me of something an instructor once told me a long time ago just after I earned my private pilot certificate, something I never forgot and always passed along to pilots I ever checked out when I became an instructor, whether we were in a Cessna 150 or a Hawker 800. “Enjoy flying an airplane, for it is a privilege denied to many. But never forgot that you’re flying a machine and machines can fail. Never, ever assume the one you’re flying won’t decide that today’s the day it may try and catch you when you least expect it. Always, always be ready.”

It was wonderful knowing you Jeremy. I’ll be thinking of you at this year’s AirVenture buddy. It won’t be the same without you.

Your friend, Rob

Advancing an Aviation Education … The Hard Way

Cessna 150

Cessna 150

Last month I pointed the finger at a couple of unique instructors, both of whom were key to my life of flying airplanes. A few e-mails rightly took me to task wondering about my own role in years of education experience, so this month, I decided to share an early experience from not long after I earned my private certificate. It proves, yet again, that many of us live to be old pilots certainly because of our experience, but sometimes too thanks to plain dumb luck.

I was returning home on a warm July afternoon in a Cessna 150 with maybe 125 hours penned in my logbook. Sky Harbor airport, my base back then in Chicago’s north suburbs, is long gone, but was remembered as a single north-south, hard-surfaced runway about 3,000 feet long. The approach from the north was clear, except for the Walgreen’s HQ a mile or so away, but there were trees near the approach from the south, something the local town refused to trim because they were considered a necessary element to the graveyard they shaded near the runway 36 numbers.

My FAA examiner told me a few months earlier my private was a lesson to learn, but sometimes we simply don’t know what we don’t know.

On final approach that afternoon I saw another aircraft on the runway and knew I needed to keep an eye on him in case he didn’t clear. But of course they always did so I added flaps 40 and of course a bunch of power to make up for all the drag. For those of you who fly the 152 these days, you have no feeling for just how much drag “flaps 40” on a Cessna 150 added to an approach. Let’s just say it’s a bunch and was one reason the later 152s were limited to flaps 30. In the July humidity I could feel there wasn’t much elevator room to play with as the nose pitched up and down, but it was flying.

Then the other airplane stopped dead on the runway and I knew a go-around was needed, one that meant full power and a climb to the side of the runway to keep the airplane on the runway in site.

With all that drag and full power, the 150 kept trying to pitch up and I kept pushing back to avoid a stall. So there I was pushing the nose down for safety and not climbing and now scared to death to let the nose pitch up because it might stall. I did the next best thing … I just kept flying straight ahead creeping up a few feet at a time watching the hangars pass below with people obviously staring up wondering what I was doing.

Readers are probably wondering why I didn’t raise some of the flaps to dump some of that drag. Great question. I guess I didn’t remember much from training about go-arounds or a good way to milk the flaps up while close to the ground right then. I’m sure I must have seen a go-around at least once or twice in flight training but right then and there I kept thinking I was about to fall out of the sky.

At this point, I’m maybe half a mile north of the airport still no more than about 200 feet agl. when it came to me … the flaps were still down. So if the flaps hanging down was the problem, getting rid of them was the solution I thought. I remembered about then not to bring them all up at once, but honestly I was pretty scared watching the roof of he Walgreens HQ coming up beneath me and the Interstate just beyond.

I hit the flap switch to bled off the drag and instantly felt the old burgundy colored airplane leap ahead … that is, just before it started to fall. The early Cessna 150s had a flap switch that had gotten more than their fair share of novice pilots into trouble because it used three positions … down, neutral and up. In order to milk the flaps up, I should have brought the switch to up long enough to return to flaps 30 before returning the switch to neutral.

Of course, that’s not what I did. In my haste to climb, I just flicked the switch and in about 15 seconds went from flaps 40 to 0. The part about flaps adding lift seemed to have completely escaped me too I guess.

I only avoided parking the 150 in the Walgreens’ employee lot that afternoon by yanking back on the control wheel more out of fear than anything else. With all the drag gone and me being the only passenger, the little airplane climbed just fine back to pattern altitude and around the patch for a safe landing a few minutes later.

Forgetting that flap switch was one mistake I never made again. I also made sure I reminded students about it when I became a teacher myself years later. And yes, we practiced plenty of go-arounds before I even sent them out solo.

Instructors to Remember … and Forget

After 40 years in both the flying and communicating side of the aviation business, it’s almost impossible for me to remember that I almost allowed my first flight instructor to drive me completely away from the business many years ago. Although he’s long gone – I hope – the lessons still seem significant enough to pass on today at a time when the industry’s hunting and pecking for every possible student pilot. Lucky for me, another CFI entered my life years later and completely turned my world around.

7FC TriChamp

Photo courtesy Chris Houston

In 1966 I was a 17-year old freshman at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Aviation and anxious to learn to fly. I never doubted my goal … to be an airline pilot.

In those days, student pilots and instructors at the school were randomly paired and I drew a guy named Tom. We flew the mighty 90-hp 7FC Tri-Champ with the student in front and the instructor behind.

School began in late September with ground school and the “Box,” a name we’d all attached to the Link trainer we were expected to master before we took to the air. I never realized I was a bit claustrophobic until the first time Tom sat me in the box, closed the door and pulled the cover down on top of me leaving me in nearly total darkness. We didn’t brief much before we began so not surprisingly, the sessions didn’t go well since I never really understood the point of moving a control stick inside a dark little room as dials and gauges spun like mad before my eyes. Looking back on it today, I realize Tom talked a lot, asked few questions and simply assumed I was following. Another was that I hadn’t yet flown the airplane. Finally one day I did.Link_Trainer

I clearly loved every moment in the air despite being nearly clueless about what I was supposed to be doing, except for reminders from the back seat like … “what are you doing that for?” It was at about the five-hour mark that things started to get really ugly because I just didn’t seem to be coming together. I remember landing practice. Right near the pavement on the first few, Tom started yelling … “Flare, flare, flare.” Crunch! The Tri-Champ was pretty forgiving despite hitting hard enough to knock the headset off my head a few times. After an hour of that we taxied in and shut down. Tom grabbed my shoulders and shook me hard from the back seat. “Why didn’t you flare when I told you too?” Somewhat worn out I just stared out the windshield and asked, “What’s a flare?”

I actually managed to solo the next week and was cleared to the pattern alone which helped my confidence enormously. But soon I was back in the Tri-Champ and the Link with Tom and the yelling never ended. To make matters worse, he began slapping me along side the head and yelling when I screwed up. With 15 hours total time, I finally broke. At 17 I knew I would never learn to fly. I quit school AND flying and never touched the controls of another airplane.

Until …

Jump ahead five years as I arrived to my last Air Force duty station. How I got there is too long a story right now. It’s what happened next that’s important.

Within a few days of arrival I located the base flying club. Outside the main door near the aircraft parking area sat a small set of stadium seats near the fence. I’d spend time there watching the Piper Cherokees come and go, some with two people inside, some with just one. I didn’t go into the clubhouse though.

One day, as one of the airplanes pulled up near the fence where I was eating my lunch, the engine didn’t shut down. The guy in the right seat seemed to be engaged in a conversation with the pilot. Finally the door opened, the guy in the right seat hopped out and shut the door patting it a few times after he did. As the airplane pulled away the right seat guy came over to the seats saying hi as he did. Half an hour later the Cherokee returned and the guy next to me left to greet him. Later I learned the pilot was on his second supervised solo and the fellow who’d waved to me was his instructor.

Maybe aRob in a 605 copy week or so later I’m back out on the seats just watching the airplanes when that same instructor comes out of the clubhouse door. He looks around and happens to see me so he walks over to the fence. “Why aren’t you out there flying on such a beautiful day,” he asks. “I’m not a pilot.” “Really?” he says. “You sure hang around here a lot for a guy who doesn’t fly. My name’s Ray. Stop in one of these days,” he said before turning away toward one of the airplanes. The challenge glove had been thrown down.

I didn’t go back to the viewing stand the rest of that week. It was simply too scary to think of being close to something I really loved but had already failed at.

The next week though, I did go back, but only back to the seats. To this day I think Ray was watching for me because he came out of the clubhouse door and waved … “Well, are you coming in?” I sighed deeply but got up and walked over and in the clubhouse door. And that, as they say, was that. Over some coffee, I told Ray my story of failure. Didn’t even slow him down because an hour later we went out flying … and I never stopped again. I went on to earn my ATP and my own flight instructor ratings, fly for a couple of airlines, a charter company and a couple of Part 91 corporate flight departments. As an aviation writer, I even managed to grab a couple of hours in an Airbus A-380. It has all been just so sweet.

My instructor Tom nearly ended my aviation career, but luckily there was another fabulous instructor like Ray out there waiting to offer me a hand up with a little encouragement, which is all I apparently needed.

Today I wonder how many instructors like Tom are still out there. Trust me, one like him is one too many.

So do us all in the industry a favor and offer a ride to that kid sitting outside the fence if you have the chance. You might just change their life.

Improving Your Stick and Rudder Skills: Seaplanes and Taildraggers

UPRT Photo

APS Training photo

In mid-January, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released some cold, hard facts. “Between 2001 and 2011, over 40 percent of fixed wing general aviation fatal accidents occurred because pilots lost control of their airplanes.” You might be surprised to learn that when The Boeing Company studied commercial jet accidents around the world between 2004 and 2013, the cause that resulted in more fatalities than any other – by a 2 to 1 margin actually – was Loss of Control Inflight (LOC-I). What we don’t know of course is why this keeps happening?

While the relationship between LOC-I precursors and actual loss of control is still being investigated, it’s clear that pilots of all categories are, at times, simply unable to fly their airplanes out of situations in which they find themselves. Cockpit automation has often been pegged as a likely culprit. Today, we’re going to do our part to slow the advance of LOC-I by turning off all the cockpit automation and hand-flying the airplane more often. Two ways I learned to be more closely tied to my airplane was to check out in a taildragger and earn my seaplane rating. Both require all hands on the controls from the moment you turn over the engine until shutdown. While flying both can be challenging at times, I’ve found the skills they build have truly made me a better pilot and instructor.

Dragging My Tail

I learned to fly a 7ECA Citabria many years ago after I bought it. I thought it was just an airplane with the steering wheel on the wrong end – although it used a control stick and not a wheel. Wrong again. For starters, the view out the cockpit window was different from the tricycle gear aircraft I’d flown Taildraggerbecause the taildragger’s nose sits high on the ground. That makes taxiing … interesting. Lots of rudder and brakes to turn the aircraft, or even keep it heading straight, especially when a strong breeze starts blowing. My first few hours with an instructor produced a great logbook entry … “N8300V 1.5 of crash and dash,” he wrote. I was mortified. After all, I already held a commercial pilot certificate. I’d pour the coals to it on takeoff and of course, with P-factor, torque and everything else, the Champ would head to the left side of the runway. Then I’d kick right rudder which brought us back toward centerline. Unfortunately, I waited until the nose began heading to the right edge of the runway to kick in left rudder and hence many zig-zag takeoffs were started and stopped. The key turned out to be calm days of partial power on takeoff, just enough so I could raise the tail and learn to steer before I pulled the throttle back and taxied back for another try.

It took me awhile to realize I needed to lead the nose around rather than allowing it to lead me. But of course during takeoff, the airplane is also trying to accelerate and I couldn’t see much over the nose. I also learned to raise the tail once there was enough airflow. But you have to do that gently or you’ll put the airplane on it’s nose. You might remember something in ground school called gyroscopic effect … well maybe not. Point is, when the tail comes up, that movement also makes the nose want to swing so you really need to be on the rudders there too … positively, but gently. During my first landings, all seemed normal until I realized this was simply a reverse crash and dash … keep on the rudders to keep the nose straight. Add a crosswind and it becomes a tad challenging until the tail comes back down.

Worst case scenario in my Champ was the inability of the airplane to turn downwind after landing in a 25-knot headwind. Too much brake and power and I could feel I’d put the thing on its nose. The solution turned out to be impossibly simple. Shut the engine down, get out and lift the tail myself to turn the airplane around. Then I restarted and moved it to my tiedown. While all of this sounds tough, after 10 hours or so, I was no longer zig zagging. I used my rudders often and cross winds no longer seemed to bother me as much. I’d become not only coordinated, but finely tuned.

seaplaneSplish Splash

Last fall I realized I craved a new learning challenge. That evolved into earning my seaplane rating in Traverse City, Michigan. The first hour in that Cub on floats reminded me of a few things from my days as a taildraggers student. When the pitch and power of the instructor’s voice is high and loud, danger is near. I also realized the airplane started moving the minute the propeller spun up and of course, there are no brakes. Like the Champ, the Cub had a control stick which I thought made aileron and elevator movements easier to plan and water rudders for improved steering on the surface. I just needed to remember to retract them before takeoff and landing. The seaplane rating is all about learning to taxi, takeoff and land on the water. The rest is like any other airplane, except that when the instructor pulled the engine on me at 1,000 feet AGL, those floats acted like barn doors that pegged the vertical speed indicator pretty fast. On takeoff, it’s all about finding a place on the water called, “the step.” It’s a spot where you have just enough forward pressure on the stick to raise the back of the floats out of the water, but not so much that you put the airplane on its nose. Like the taildragger, it was all about learning to fine tune my movements. I learned this piece of fine tuning the hard way however.

On takeoff, I shoved the stick forward in the Cub like I did to raise the tail in the Champ. WRONG! I learned that fine tuning means too much forward pressure on the stick and the floats bog down in the water. After a few takeoffs, I absolutely began to feel it. Too little back pressure on takeoff and we just mush along in the water like a boat. Finding the takeoff sweet spot meant power, a bit of forward pressure and after about three or four seconds, the airplane accelerated … no it actually jumped ahead. Then I had to finely oscillate the stick to keep the floats in the same place until liftoff speed. Then a bit of back pressure and I was climbing just like a regular bird. By the second hour or so of instruction I thought figured it out. My silent instructor in the back seat confirmed it. There is of course the issue of docking the airplane to contend with too, but I’m still working on that part.

The point of convincing you to give a taildragger or a seaplane rating a try is of course, both are fun. But both also require the pilot to control the aircraft very precisely at times. The first few hours will be real work, but after that you’ll be surprised at how much better you’ll fly these and any other airplane. BTW, when you see AOPA President Mark Baker at AirVenture this year, tell him you’re thinking about a seaplane rating. He has more great seaplane stories than any half dozen other pilots I know.

Older posts