Author: Ron Rapp (page 1 of 5)

The Big Lie: ATC Stuck in the 1960s

The debate on so-called “ATC privatization” is not a new one. A Google search of the phrase yields 171,000 results, many of them news articles going back more than a quarter century.

AOPA, EAA, NBAA, and most other alphabet groups are pushing back against the most recent iteration of this idea, probably because of the current administration’s support for the concept and the feeling that unsteady funding from Congress is causing some people to take another look at it.

I’m highly opposed to privatization for a number of reasons. In general, I prefer a competitive marketplace where possible, as this provides the best product at the lowest price for the consumer. But there are some areas where multiple vendors just aren’t an option. Air traffic control, it seems to me, is one of those. But I’ll leave the argument against ATC privatization to the pros. The folks at AOPA, EAA, etc. have articulated that far better than I ever could.

What I’m concerned about right now is the patently false idea that air traffic control in this country is somehow mired in the 1960s. I’ve read recent articles from the Reason Foundation, Steve Forbes (who, as a major user of general aviation, ought to know better), the Orange County Register, and a number of other publications proffering this claim. It’s fake news – demonstrably false. Whoever peddles this stuff either has no idea what they’re talking about, or is intentionally putting forth a lie.

I spent the early part of the 1980s living in Alaska, frequently hanging out at the Anchorage ARTCC because my cousin worked there. I used to take flight data progress strips off the huge dot matrix printers and put them in those little plastic holders and run them to the various sectors. I saw the vacuum tube powered computer equipment they were using. I flew with my cousin in those round gauge equipped airplanes, and marveled at the sophistication of Silver Crown avionics.

Today? Visit any Center and you’ll find modern computers have replaced all that old stuff. From trainers to airliners, we’re flying almost exclusively based on satellite navigation. That didn’t even exist in the early 80s, let alone the 1960s! Our airways were defined solely by ground-based navaids. VOR navigation was a luxury, and NDB usage was ubiquitous. People were still flying around using four course ranges!

Today, T and Q routes are rapidly supplanting the old stuff. When I’m up high enough to get over traffic, I will often be cleared direct from coast to coast. That would’ve been impossible in the 1960s.

Does this look like 1960 to you?

Does this look like 1960 to you?

Our arrival and departure procedures are optimized for routing and traffic. We’ve got radius-to-fix segments on approaches, satellite overlays for many of the remaining ground-based procedures, and even GPS-based precision approaches which require almost no equipment beyond that which exists in orbit.

As I understand it, air traffic control weather radar, to the extend they had it 50 years ago, was a marginal mish-mash of green shades providing information which was difficult to interpret and limited in scope. Today they’re using ASR and NEXRAD-derived WARP systems which provide infinitely better weather data to controllers and, by extension, aviators. Heck, over the past 20 years I’ve noticed the marked improvement in the way controllers are able to route traffic around weather. They aren’t doing that with divining rods.

Back then, ATC’s radar network was limited and ground based. That system is being replaced by satellite-based ADS-B technology which provides better coverage, faster updates, and many other benefits – including traffic and weather data beamed directly into the cockpit.

The list goes on and on. How about the ATC towers? We’re starting to utilize “remote” towers which don’t even require the physical presence of a controller at the airport. Would that have been possible in the 1960s? Of course not.

Let’s talk about filing flight plans. In the 1960s, you had to physically go to an airport to visit a weather specialist to find out what Mother Nature was doing. Then you’d write out a flight plan by hand on a piece of paper and give it to the FSS specialist, who would do… well, something with it. Within a half hour, you might be able to obtain your clearance. That was pretty speedy for 1960!

Today, you get all that information on a smartphone and can file a flight plan with that same app. I’ve seen a clearance show up within 30 seconds after filing. Part of that is due to the advance of computer technology, but a big piece of it is also the way our ATC system is able to interact with the modern internet. From NOTAM and weather dissemination to airspace design, virtually nothing of the old system is still in use. VHF voice communication represents one of the few exceptions, but even that is being supplanted, especially on oceanic routes.

The bottom line here is that our air traffic control system is NOT stuck in the 1960s. Those who believe it is should talk to a few pilots and controllers. Sure, we have plenty of traffic delays in aviation. Much of that is due to weather – something no ATC “reform” is going to fix. The rest of the congestion is due to a lack of runway and airport capacity. Remember all those airports which were closed? They were called “relievers” for a reason. All those runway and airport expansion ideas which were quashed? You see the result every time you’re #10 in line for departure at a major airport.

Equating delays with ATC is as illogical as claiming the freeways are congested because of faded highway signage. If people want to support ATC “privatization,” I can respect that viewpoint. But letting hyperbole, sensationalism, and misinformation into the conversation serves us all poorly.

If you want to look at facts — and I hope you do — then the answer is clear: America’s air traffic control system is the largest, safest, most efficient, and modern one on Earth.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

Know thyself

I’ve met so many people on my journey in aviation. Some of them were ridiculously happy, thankful every day for the ability to go to work as a pilot. Others were jaded and surly, giving the distinct impression that they’d rather be scratching their fingernails along a never-ending chalkboard than be anywhere around an airplane or airport. Sometimes those two people were even the same age, doing the same job at the same company and making the same money!

Now we all have our good days and our bad ones. But how could their outlooks on life in aviation be so divergent? Is it just a matter of perspective? I’m sure sometimes that’s part of it. But as the years have passed, I’ve come to wonder if perhaps one of them is simply in the right place and the other one is not. A square peg in a round hole, if you will.

It brings to mind my salad days, which were spent in concert halls and theaters. Most of my formal training is in the arts, and that kind of career involves a lot of auditioning. Even when you’ve got a job, the need for another one is never far behind. Much like a student pilot waiting on the weather to improve sufficiently for a solo cross country, it can wear on you after a while.

Say what you will about life as a pilot, at least we’re not interviewing for a gig a hundred times a year!

Anyway, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received from my years in the performing arts field came from a well-known casting director. She said it was important to “know thyself.” In other words, the odds of success were much higher if we went after the jobs which best fit our skills, background, and natural talents. Beating the odds meant ensuring your time and energy were directed at the right gigs.

If this sounds self-evident, keep in mind others don’t always see us the way we see ourselves. Sometimes we think we’re heeding this advice, only to learn much later that we were not. I recall doing a lot of navel gazing after that pep talk. But in the long run, it was great advice and helped me tremendously.

The same is true for a professional pilot. There are as many different flying jobs as there are stars in the sky. Setting aside the irony of being asked if I ever want to be a commercial pilot when I’m already earning six figures doing just that, most people equate “commercial pilot” with only one thing: a white shirt with epaulets and a bunch of people in the back going to grandma’s house for the holidays. But that only scratches the surface of what’s out there. Just because an airline job is many people’s idea of the brass ring doesn’t mean you have to make it yours.

I’ve met more than one person who was completely dissatisfied with a $200,000+ job flying top-of-the-line business jets to exotic locations. I knew a guy who had probably 20 days off each month on top of it all. And he still didn’t like it. Eventually he quit and went off to sell insurance. Or maybe it was real estate. I was too dumbfounded by the whole situation to focus on that part. Either way, the point is that he worked harder and made less money at the new job—and yet he was markedly happier.

Perhaps some of these folks would be better served by teaching, crop dusting (don’t laugh—those guys can make great money), flying for a scheduled airline, or owning their own business instead of working for someone else. Maybe they belong in the bush. Or on the side of a glacier. Or giving helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon. Flying airshows. Ferrying airplanes. Zipping around the San Juan Islands in a floatplane. Working for law enforcement. Or doing any one of a hundred different things.

“Shiny jet syndrome” isn’t just a cute phrase. Sometimes the equipment, the lifestyle, the paycheck, and/or the Instagram feed can lead us down the wrong path. There are only 24 hours in a day, and we spend a third of that sleeping. The remaining hours are largely spent at work. Life’s too short to do something you hate all day, even if it comes with golden handcuffs.

There are a lot of flying jobs out there, and today an up-and-coming aviator has something rare: choices. Before leaping into a particular segment of aviation, take the time to look inward and really figure out what makes you tick.

You’ll thank yourself for it.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

When things go sideways

I can’t determine who first said it, but flying has been described as “hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” The phrase may have been adapted from a description of trench warfare published in Guy’s Hospital Gazette during the first world war. Anyway, as an aerobat, the first bit leaves me scratching my head. Flying? Boring? I don’t get it.

The part about sheer terror can occasionally ring true, however. That was my first thought upon hearing that a Cessna 310R had crashed on the southbound lanes of the 405 freeway just feet from the airport boundary at Orange County’s John Wayne Airport a few days ago. From takeoff to engine failure to pancaking onto the highway took but a couple of minutes. Thankfully the pilot avoided a stall/spin situation and landed the aircraft more or less in one piece. As a result, both occupants survived.

I’ve often noted how NTSB statistics teach us that most mishaps occur on the ground rather than in the air. That has been my experience as well. This crash represents the first major accident I can remember at SNA – my home field — in many years. The airport has nearly 300,000 operations annually, so that’s really saying something.

One thing airborne and ground-based accidents have in common, however, is that when things go sideways, they tend to do so in an awful hurry. One such example occurred to my airplane recently. I returned from a trip and left the plane in the (normally) capable hands of the line staff at Signature. The next day I received a phone call informing me that one of their fuel trucks had backed into the trailing edge of the right wing.

The damage was not catastrophic, but it set off a long chain of insurance claims, inspections, temporary repairs, ferry flights, downtime, aircraft rentals, missed trips, etc. which continue to this day. I spent a few hours at the airport, documenting the damage and interviewing anyone who was there or had information which might be relevant.

One person I did not have the opportunity to talk to was the driver of the fuel truck. He had been sent home and, I later learned, terminated. That seems to be typical these days, but I sort of wish it wasn’t. In Bob Hoover’s autobiography, Forever Flying, he relates the story of his Shrike Commander being misfueled with Jet-A instead of 100LL at a San Diego airshow in the 1980s. After a dual engine failure and off-airport landing, Hoover says he told the offending fueler, “There isn’t a man alive who hasn’t made a mistake. But I’m positive you’ll never make this mistake again. That’s why I want to make sure that you’re the only one to refuel my plane tomorrow. I won’t let anyone else on the field touch it.”

I’m fairly certain the fuel truck driver who backed into my aircraft would never have made that mistake again. Alas, the risk averse nature of modern business ensures he’ll never have the opportunity to become a better, safer employee.

If I could have spoken to the driver, I would’ve remind him that damaging a wing was not the end of the world. First of all, that’s why we have insurance. Second – and more importantly – is that things could have been a lot worse. A few years ago I saw a ramp worker walk into a turning King Air propeller on the same field. Believe it or not, he wasn’t killed or permanently maimed. At least, not that I know of. The pilot had already pulled the condition levers to “cutoff” and the prop levers to feather, so the ramper was whacked by the flat blade of a slowing prop and knocked out. It was bad enough that they took him away in an ambulance, but at least he was alive. The FBO terminated his employment.

A friend who flies a Stearman once related the story of hand propping the plane and having one of the blades nick the side of his leg as the engine fired. Cut and a little bloodied, but not permanently injured, he too escaped what could have been a disastrous accident.

I could go on all day with stories like that. An experienced and conscientious ramp worker I knew at Van Nuys was working the graveyard shift on a poorly lit area of the tarmac one night, preparing to tow a Gulfstream toward the hangar. Suddenly, to his horror, the airplane began rolling away. Can you imagine the disbelief with which he must have watched the slow speed crash as the jet collided with another Gulfstream parked nearby? A critical pin had not been securely fastened to the tow bar and once the chocks were removed, gravity took over. As with the others, the employee lost his job.

Though we’re not always cognizant of it, everything we do in life involves risk. But the nature of flying and the cost of aircraft make aviation particularly unforgiving of carelessness or error… so let’s all be careful out there, even when – or perhaps I should say especially when – you’re on the ground.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

Fuelish decisions

Nonpilots are usually surprised to learn that the most involved and challenging part of flying sometimes takes place on the ground: preflighting the aircraft, making weather decisions, filing flight plans, programming avionics, navigating the taxiways at a complex airfield, ensuring regulatory compliance, and so on. This is probably as true for the airline pilot as it is for the light GA aircraft owner.

In the world of corporate and charter flying, things are a little different. Based on my experience, the time suck award goes to the fuel-purchasing process. Surprised? I don’t blame you. It’s counter-intuitive to think that buying gas would involve any challenge whatsoever, especially when you’ve got a large team of dispatchers at your disposal. How hard could it be? Just see where the fuel is cheapest and buy there, right?

I wish.

For better or worse, the FBO’s advertised cost of fuel is rarely the price we pay. If we’re at a large chain like Signature or Atlantic, the sheer volume of jet fuel we buy in a year gives us the power to negotiate for lower costs. A Gulfstream IV burns about 500 gph, and our fleet has more than 50 aircraft flying an average of perhaps 500 hours annually. Do the math and you’ll see why the major chains are willing to discount significantly to earn a piece of that business.

Our flight releases provide the negotiated rate, so that part of the process is simple. But sometimes—typically at the smaller chains and independent FBOs—we’ll be using contract fuel through Colt, UVair, World Fuel, or another such entity.

The irony of fuel contracts is that the people who are pumping the gas can’t tell you what it costs. Ask the employee at the front desk how much a gallon of fuel will cost with that Avfuel release and they’ll just shrug. The price varies depending on the specifics of each operator’s agreement with Avfuel. It reminds me of our medical system, where the physician who’s performing a procedure or checkup would be unable to tell you how much it’ll set you back—even after the treatment is over. Could be $100, could be $1,000. Maybe it’s $10,000.

Again, I can determine our contract fuel price by inquiring with my company’s dispatch staff. The next question is whether to buy fuel or tanker it. This computation is a bit more complex. Carrying extra fuel makes the aircraft heavier, so while it might save you from having to purchase more expensive gas at your destination, you’ll also burn more fuel en route in order to do it. Some pilots rely on smartphone apps or spreadsheets; others have rules of thumb for their specific aircraft that dictate the conditions under which it makes sense to tanker. A heavier airplane can’t cruise as high, either, so if thunderstorms, turbulence, and/or adverse winds are part of the mix, the decision-making process goes even deeper. Beyond the safety and comfort aspects, is saving the money worth potentially having to circumnavigate weather at FL390 instead of going over it at FL450?

Another part of the fuel-purchasing decision process involves the seemingly arbitrary costs imposed by FBOs. There are landing fees, ramp fees, handling charges, infrastructure costs, and more. Some of them are dictated by the airport; others are left to the discretion of the FBO. Certain costs can be waived; others cannot. At my home airport, the instant our G-IV hits the ramp, a $700 handling cost is assessed. This is pretty typical.

Some FBOs charge less—but then, I’ve also paid more than twice that at places such as San Francisco International. Oh, they’ll be happy to waive it, but you have to purchase hundreds of gallons of fuel (SFO is currently charging $7.60 per gallon for Jet-A; if you’re using avgas it’s $8). Internationally, the highest handling fee I’ve seen was well over $3,000.

The type of trip will help dictate whether I try to offset the handling fees. If it’s a non-revenue (Part 91) flight for the owner, I’ll include the handling fees in my math since they come out of his pocket. If it’s a charter trip, the cost is paid by the customer, so I’ll usually ignore the handling charge and make the decision based solely on obtaining the lowest possible fuel price.

Every now and then I’ll run into a fee I’ve not seen before. I was at Dallas Fort-Worth Airport recently and noticed that the fuel price was something like $1.90. I later discovered that they added a $0.40/gallon “fuel surcharge” to the base cost. This fee is fairly common abroad, but I’d not seen it before in the United States. At least, not that I recall. This surcharge boosted the price by 21 percent and shifted the cost/benefit analysis considerably.

Speaking of which, sometimes despite our best efforts, we end up buying the most expensive fuel through no fault of our own. There are several ways in which this can happen. For example, my home airport recently got a new FBO, and despite being based there, they charged us the non-tenant rate for fuel because of a technicality regarding a lease agreement. Lesson learned.

Sometimes a fuel release won’t be honored. That happened in Africa, where a discrepancy between the company name on the fuel release (we use a DBA) and the one on our other paperwork caused the fueler to refuse it. Try explaining the intricacies of a corporate DBA to an African fuel truck driver who speaks no English at 3 a.m. during a tech stop. It’s quite comical.

The most common way we get hosed on fuel pricing is when we purchase or tanker gas in anticipation of a specific itinerary only to have the airports and FBOs change after the fact. Changes are part of the nature of charter flying—there’s not much we can do about that—but it still stings to know we could have saved a ton of money if only we’d known an hour earlier that we’d be going to Airport “B” instead of Airport “A”.

Fuelish decision making is a critical part of corporate and charter aviation. Next to safety-related considerations, it might even be the most important, especially for the large-cabin/long-range airplanes. It’s certainly one of the most variable. Fueling up in the wrong place can turn a profitable trip into a four-figure loss, and that’s something nobody wants.

There’s another motivation at play, too—a personal one: I want to reward the FBOs that provide low prices and encourage the less competitive ones to consider why they aren’t getting my business.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

The Engine That Could

“Don’t make ’em like they used to…”

I’m not sure if it was a question or a statement, but the docent who sidled up to my son and I recently at the Museum of Flight was right as rain. We stood silently for a few moments, gazing at the long lines of the warbird fuselage in front of us.

I’d already read Airscape Magazine’s two-part series on the developmental history of the Supermarine Spitfire (nerd alert!), so perhaps it was a father-like-son moment which prompted my two year old to make a bee-line for the Spitfire Mk.IX when we entered the museum’s Personal Courage Wing.

The plane itself received a once-over. But what really caught my kid’s attention was the Rolls Royce Merlin engine parked nearby. It was accompanied by an informational display and panel with a single button. I dunno if the kid is going to be a pilot when he grows up, but if one of the signs is a love of pressing buttons, the odds are looking good. This one played a throaty recording of a Merlin starting up, followed by the sound of a high-speed fly-by of a Merlin-powered Spitfire.

He must have pressed that button a hundred times. There’s something universally captivating about the sound of a large-displacement inline engine and propeller going by at hundreds of miles per hour. Even a two year old gets it.

Although some Spitfire variants were propelled by Griffon engines, the majority of the 20,000+ fleet rolled off the production line with the slightly smaller Merlin powerplant.

Now, I’m a big Rolls-Royce fan. Not because of their automobiles, which is what most Americans probably associate them with — to be honest, I probably wouldn’t know one of their cars if it parked in my driveway and I was handed the keys. No, it’s because the planes I fly at work are powered by Rolls-Royce engines.

In fact, every true Gulfstream aircraft thus far has been paired with a Rolls-Royce engine. The original Gulfstream turboprop utilized a Dart 529. The G-II and G-III were paired with Spey turbofans. My G-IV has Tay 611s. The G-V/550 is powered by the BR-700 series. The flagship G650 travels with one of the latest Rolls-Royce engines, the BR-725.

This line of turbofans is famous for a long history of power and reliability. I think of it as the jet equivalent of Pratt & Whitney’s PT6A turboprop engine. It just goes and goes. Interestingly, Gulfstream recently broke with tradition and selected Pratt’s PurePower PW800 series for the upcoming fly-by-wire G500 and G600 aircraft, so the long romance between Savannah and Britain may be coming to an end. If so, the pairing will still go down in history as one of the most successful in aviation history.

Anyway, those Merlin/Griffon reciprocating engines were a huge success for Rolls, and even today they remain among the most iconic elements of classic warbird aviation. Of course, the war only lasted a few years, and it seems piston technology was barely mature before everyone was racing to cast it all aside in favor of turbojets.

Rolls-Royce started working on a replacement for their aviation recips even before World War II ended, and this jet engine aspiration became the known as the Avon. This moniker might bring to mind the billion-dollar direct sale cosmetics company; thankfully, there’s no relation whatsoever. Like many of Roll’s engines, the Avon was named after a river in England. Although I’m not sure which one. “Avon” is derived from Celtic word for “river”, and at least five rivers in England share the name.

The Avon turbojet engine was first run in 1946, and and the last one was produced… well, that’s the kicker: they never stopped making them. You can still get a new one today.

Conventional wisdom would suggest avoiding the first product of any new technology. Lord knows the first “laptop” computer, automatic transmission, or cellular phone was no prize. Yet here’s one which has been powering aircraft, ships, factories, drilling rigs, and just about anything else for nearly two-thirds of a century. To be sure, Rolls has made improvements and upgrades to the line, but still, what an impressive record.

And speaking of records, according to a Wikipedia page on the Avon, in 1982 one of these engines ran for 53,000 hours before requiring a major overhaul; in ’94 one operated continuously for 476 days. To put that into perspective, the Tay 611 engine on my Gulfstream IV-SP — which is about four decades newer than the Avon — is opened up for a hot section inspection every 4,000 hours and is totally disassembled for a major overhaul every 8,000 hours.

That’s not to say a Tay couldn’t do everything an Avon does. I’m sure it could. Industrial uses are nowhere near as critical as aviation applications — that’s why the overhaul and inspection intervals for aircraft engines are so much shorter than the astronomical numbers posted by the older design. Still, it’s a unique testament to British aviation in general, and Rolls-Royce in particular, that an engine can remain in profitable production for so long.

Will any of the designs on today’s drawing boards still be in production 70 years from now? Probably not. A fellow pilot recently mentioned that his employer is in the process of trading their existing G450 for one of upcoming fly-by-wire G600s. Their question to the CEO of Gulfstream was aircraft longevity and how long they plan on supporting their aircraft. The answer was surprising. While they do support everything out there, all the way back to the original turboprop-powered Gulfstream I, they plan a ten year cycle on their current aircraft.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

Aircraft Security: Serious Business in a Dangerous World

It’s counterintuitive, but statistics clearly show that you’re more likely to have an accident or incident on the ground than in the air. Think about the hangar rash, ground loops, runway overruns, gear up landings, blown tires, and other maladies you’ve probably seen.

As I often remind students when we’re talking about flight safety, the worst aviation accident in history occurred on the ground when two Boeing 747s collided in the fog at Tenerife Island in 1977. (You might say 9/11 was worse — and you’re definitely correct — but nothing that happened that day was an accident.)

The propensity for problems on the ground applies to security, too. Since 2001, general aviation has become necessarily familiar with key controls, door/canopy/prop/hangar locks, airport access restrictions, gate codes, SIDA badges, and more. It’s a major part of our flying lives on the ground, like it or not. And for the record, I definitely do NOT like it. Every time I walk up to a Cub, TravelAir, or Stinson, the very way the airplane was designed speaks to the innocence of its era. It’s as if those who built these elegant flying machines couldn’t conceive of a world where someone would want to harm them.

Anyway, the same security concerns exist for corporate and charter operators, which are far more closely related to the rest of general aviation than to the airlines. Instead of a couple hundred airports, we fly to thousands of different ones around the country — indeed, around the world. Airliners often fly 18 or more hours per day, plying a limited route system and stopping only for maintenance or at well-lit terminals and jetways.

Business jets? Not so much. We’re as likely to end up on a dark, quiet ramp of a small reliever airport as anyplace else, and the aircraft will often sit there for days while we lay over at our destination.

That’s why security is so important to us. And unlike the airlines, biz jet pilots take care of most security precautions personally. Even at my company’s home base — one of the largest and most prominent business aviation airports on the planet — in the past couple of years, aircraft have been attacked by taggers, iPads have been stolen from inside the cockpits, and mentally unstable people have snuck onto the airport in an attempt to access our airplanes. The stories I could tell…

If that’s what happens in the nice areas, imagine what a prominent target that shiny multi-million dollar jet makes when alighting in some of the world’s most blighted places abroad. The threats are real, and on a side note, they extend to the people as much as the aircraft. Two months ago, a business jet crew was enroute to a Marriott Courtyard hotel near Mexico City when a van cut out in front of their taxi. The kidnappers then exited the van and proceeded to pull the crew from their vehicle. The crew was held for approximately six hours before their release only after the kidnappers received some form of ransom either from the crew or the company/entity they fly for.

Anyway, to counter these threats, we take extra precautions to secure the aircraft. We’re helped by the fact that the manufacturers of these jets usually include security mechanisms which are typically lacking in the older reciprocating GA fleet, like internal window locks to prevent the emergency exits from being opened from the outside, beefy locks on the many access panels, ports, and doors, etc. Many of these airplanes came with an electronic security system built into the airframe as well, though it’s not always utilized by operators.

We’ll also apply tamper-proof security tape over larger entrances like the main door, baggage door, and aft equipment bay door. At some locations, private security is hired to provide another layer of protection. Our destinations are rated for their level of safety as part of the dispatch process, too. Local handlers are mined for their expertise and knowledge. And as pilots, we do our own homework about each airport and city.

When we return to the airplane to get it ready for the next departure, the interior and exterior are swept to check for any sign of tampering. Even if nothing intentionally nefarious has occurred, a curious kid who hops the airport fence at 3 a.m. and starts poking around in a landing gear well can do plenty of damage to exposed tires, hydraulic lines, or electrical wiring. As any pilot can attest, airplanes are amazingly strong and yet surprisingly fragile. Too much torque or pressure applied at the wrong place can break an air data probe, pitot tube, or other component as easily as a trained martial arts expert snapping an adversary’s limb.

As the proverb goes, forewarned is forearmed. On the ground as much as in the air, smart pilots and operators will utilize every tactical advantage to keep their aircraft and passengers safe.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

The ‘Differences Training’ Difference

Most pilots have experienced “differences training” in one way or another. Perhaps it was making the jump from a normally-aspirated airplane like the Cessna Centurion to its turbocharged cousin. Or switching from the proverbial “Hershey wing” Cherokee to the tapered-wing Archer.

In larger aircraft, it might come in the form of an FAA-sanctioned day of training on the differences between a Gulfstream G450 and G550 – two airplanes covered by a single type rating.

These miniature training courses are present throughout the flying world. And for the most part, they aren’t seen as a big deal. Sometimes they aren’t even referred as “differences training.” For example, many companies integrate new pilots through a process called Initial Operating Experience, or IOE. This is something I do at my own company. As an IOE captain, I help new pilots who’ve completed their ground and simulator training make their first operational flights.

It’s kind of a bespoke process, but still recognizable as “differences training.” Some of the aviators are far more experienced on the Gulfstream IV than me, but are new to the company. With them, I’ll focus more on company procedures, especially the myriad iPhone and iPad apps we use for flight risk analysis, aeronautical charting, flight planning, weight & balance, dispatching, company manuals, and filing flight logs.

Other IOE candidates might be long-time pilots with the company, but are new to this particular aircraft type. So while they’re up to speed on our SOPs, a bit of mentoring on the peculiarities of the G-IV might be required.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that differences training is well named, because it can make the difference between safe and unsafe operation. It can even be the root cause of an accident. As I look back at the Gulfstream IV’s 30+ year operational history, I can see at least a couple of accidents which are directly attributable to a lack of differences training. One was a 1996 event in Chicago where differences in how pilots at two separate companies handled a nosewheel steering switch became a factor in the airplane’s loss of control.

Airline vs. Charter Captain: Big Differences

More recently, in 2012 a Gulfstream IV was lost in southern France during a short re-positioning leg. The aircraft, operated by Universal Jet Aviation, was flying from Nice-Cote d’Azur Airport (LFMN) to Le Castellet (LFMQ) with just the two pilots and a flight attendant aboard. The SIC was flying from the right seat.

After performing a visual approach to runway 13, the main landing gear touched down just about where it should have. There were almost 4,000 feet of runway remaining. The nose gear, however, did not touch the ground for another 1,500 feet, and when it did, it then came up off the ground again. The airplane began drifting to the right, the nose was forced down, and a swerve to the left caused the jet to exit the left side of the runway about 1,250 feet from the end of the pavement. It hit a metal fence and a stand of trees, catching fire and consuming the airframe. The three occupants perished in the crash.

The accident investigation was conducted by the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses — the French equivalent of our NTSB. If you’re interested in reading it, an English version of the full report is available online. In addition, I highly recommend James Albright’s analysis.

There were a number of factors in this crash, but the ones of most interest to me are those surrounding the pilot-in-command, a retired American Airlines 777 captain who was hired by Universal as a captain on the G-IV. As I’ve said many times, human error is responsible for nearly 90% of accidents, so that’s where it makes most sense to focus our energy and attention.

As a former long-haul airline pilot, he had been advanced quickly to PIC status on the Gulfstream IV. The problem is that on-demand charter flying is a world apart from flying a 777 from major airport to major airport. And there are indications the transition was proving to be a challenge:

Several UJT pilots who flew with the Captain said he was not accustomed to short flights. They also agreed in stating that he was not comfortable with handling the FMS, carrying out checklists and in his role as Pilot Monitoring in general. He had a strong personality and sometimes imposed his decisions. Two co-pilots who flew with him reported that he had already forgotten to arm the ground spoilers.

This seems pertinent considering the following:

  • The runway at Le Castellet is just over 5,000 feet long — on the short side, but well within the G-IV’s capability. While he had been to Le Castellet previously, it may have been shorter than he was comfortable with, especially given that he was not physically flying.
  • The leg from Nice to Le Castellet is about 85 nautical miles. An average 777 leg is thousands of miles long, but the Gulfstream often makes extremely short flights. Van Nuys to Burbank. Santa Monica to Los Angeles International. Teterboro to Newark. The workload is very high on these legs because everything has to be compressed into a few short minutes. It’s easy to fall behind, especially for the non-flying pilot. As a result, short flights are more risky if not handled properly.
  • The PIC had an established history of forgetting to arm the ground spoilers on the Gulfstream IV. This is a major oversight, as without the spoilers the weight of the aircraft is not fully on the wheels after touchdown.
  • The accident report highlighted training inadequacies, specifically the lack of no-ground-spoiler landings in the sim. The handling characteristics of the Gulfstream IV are markedly different when the ground spoilers fail to deploy.
  • Airline indoc and training takes several months, whereas in charter/corporate it’s done within weeks.
  • Part 135 flying involves going anywhere at any time rather than flying a smaller, pre-specified route network on a schedule.
  • Often, charter pilots swap seats as well as legs. At the airlines, the FO never sits in
    the left seat.

If I had to distill this mishap down to a single bullet point, I’d say it was the fact that the captain wasn’t capable of accomplishing everything that needed to be done. He wasn’t flying this leg, but he was mentoring a less experienced pilot who was. That’s a whole other boatload of work in and of itself. And it had to be done while doing all the non-flying tasks in the cockpit: handling radios, checklists, programming the FMS, configuring the airplane, and so on. That’s why the non-flying pilot has a much higher workload than the one physically manipulating the controls.

Universal is a highly experienced operator; you’d think they would understand that 30,000 hours in a long-haul 777 doesn’t prepare a pilot for the 135 shtick. But this sort of thing happens all the time — and not just in bizjets.

I remember checking out a successful and decorated former F-4 carrier pilot in a Pitts S-2B and thinking it would be relatively easy because he was quite good with the Super Decathlon and had plenty of aerobatic competition experience. The reality? He’s the only guy I was never able to sign off to solo the Pitts. He just wasn’t fast enough on the rudder to maintain control, no matter what I tried. It always struck me as odd, because he performed plenty of carrier night landings in a large, heavy fighter onto a short, pitching deck.

Anyway, perhaps differences training aimed at transitioning a widebody airline captain into a charter PIC would have avoided the Le Castellet accident. If I was designing such a course, it would highlight short runways, uncontrolled fields, circling approaches, and short legs – all the things an experienced 777 captain never does.

The takeaway is this: every flying job requires a different skillset. The final stages of training should be carefully and thoughtfully tailored to each candidate’s individual needs. We make assumptions based on a pilot’s previous experience or total flight time at our peril.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.


I think Dirty Harry said it best: a man’s got to know his limitations. Loathe as we may be to admit it, we all have them. Our bodies can only go so long without food, water, and sleep. The mind can only process so quickly, the memory retain so much, the senses absorb so much input before they cease to function properly.

Likewise, the equipment we fly has limits, too. Airspeed, temperature, pressure, altitude, RPM, weight, center of gravity, and other limitations must be understood and respected if we want our aircraft to respond in a predictable manner. This is something every pilot learns from the very first day of training, and those limitations look him or her square in the face on every flight. From color coded markings on the gauges to those annoying placards liberally distributed throughout the cockpit, you don’t have to look far to find an advisory or warning in the aviation world.

But let’s be honest, some of these limitations might get exceeded on occasion without major catastrophe. Perhaps it’s a slight overspeed on a fixed pitch prop during aerobatics. Flying a bit over gross weight. Exceeding a duty day limit. Extending the flaps a few knots above Vfe. Flying under VFR when the visibility hasn’t quite reached the requisite level.

Normally, these minor variances don’t result in disaster. The problem is, once you’ve ventured beyond that red radial line, you’re essentially a test pilot and the margin of safety built into the aircraft by the designer is now gone. How far can you push it before something bad happens? Nobody knows until it actually happens. I hope you’re as uncomfortable thinking about that as I am writing it.

Now if you actually are a test pilot — say, one flying an experimental aircraft during phase one — that’s one thing. You know what you’re getting into, and you have prepared for it with engineering data, specific training, contingency plans, and so on.

But if you’re a professional aviator flying passengers in a transport category airplane, your whole raison d’etre is to ensure the ship remains well within the documented limitations. I once got to see first-hand what happens when you ignore them. It was about a decade ago, and I was sitting in the lobby of an FBO at John Wayne Airport when a loud “boom” emanated from the general direction of the runway. Within a few seconds, thick black smoke wafted up into the air.

Once the smoke had cleared, I got a look at what happens when a jet’s brake system limitations are exceeded:

110907-hawker_jet_fire1 110907-hawker_jet_fire2

From the NTSB report:

On October 29, 2007, about 1400 Pacific daylight time, a Raytheon Corporate Jets Hawker 800XP, N800CC, was substantially damaged by a fire originating from the left main landing gear after the takeoff was aborted at the John Wayne-Orange County Airport, Santa Ana, California. The aircraft is owned and operated by CIT Leasing Corp. and was originating at the time for the 14 CFR Part 91 business flight. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time and an instrument flight rules flight plan was filed. The two airline transport pilots and six passengers were not injured. The flight was destined for Denver, Colorado.

The pilot reported to the responding Federal Aviation Administration Inspector from the Long Beach, California, Flight Standards District Office that the takeoff was aborted twice before the third attempt due to an engine warning light. All three takeoff attempts were made within about a 20 minute period.

Inspection of the landing gear found that the left main landing gear tires overheated and blew during the third takeoff attempt. The hydraulic line on the left main landing gear was severed and hydraulic fluid leaked out onto the hot surface and ignited.

Jet aircraft, with their 150+ mph takeoff speeds and higher weights, can place tremendous strain on the brakes in the event of an aborted takeoff. That’s why most aircraft in that class have a time limitation after an abort. The brakes must be allowed to cool for a specified period (or, if the aircraft has brake temperature sensors, until a specific temperature is reached) so that if the second takeoff attempt also ends with an abort, the brakes don’t overheat and fail.

I don’t know what the limitation is for the Hawker, but I would be surprised if three attempts were allowed within 20 minutes. The scary part is that the Hawker has a fuselage fuel tank aft of the trailing edge of the wing, right where the skin has been burned through.

I don’t know what happened to the flight crew, but if brake limitations exist and the PIC intentionally exceeded them, FAA sanctions might’ve been difficult if not impossible to avoid. Aviation is like that. You can fly safely for 20 years and with one moment of carelessness ruin a whole career.

Tough business, eh?

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

A Pioneer Goes West

There are many big names in the general aviation world: King, Collins, Klapmeier, Poberezny, and so on. But Arnold Palmer was something unique, even among the giants in our industry. I think his achievements in the air may have matched anything he accomplished on the golf course.
Think that’s crazy? Let’s look at the evidence.

Everyone knows the highlights of Palmer’s sports career, but how many aviators do you know who soloed in six hours? That’s not a typo. I’m fairly certain I was still trying to figure out how to start the engine properly at the six hour mark (some might argue that I’m still working on it, 8000 hours later… but that’s a topic for another time). If my CFI had tried to cut me loose at that point – not that there was any danger of this actually happening, mind you — I would have been the one pulling on HIS shirt tail as I hauled him back into the cockpit. What’s the old saying? “A man’s got to know his limitations”.

Palmer was a quick study in many aspects of life beyond sports and business. But it’s clear he also had a major passion for flying airplanes. How many aviators have set world speed records circumnavigating the Earth? Or flew actively for more than 56 continuous years?

I believe the average non-professional pilot logs about 30-40 hours annually. But Arnie? Well, I’m wracking my brain to think of another aviator – one who never worked professionally in the aviation field – who could lay claim to nearly 20,000 hours of flight time. That kind of figure is normally reserved for airline pilots. It’s an average of more than 350 hours a year. How many of us fly that much – AND manage to sustain it for over half a century?

What I love most about this statistic is that it tells a love story. Arnold Palmer didn’t need to fly the airplane in order to reap the benefits – at least, not after the business aviation field got established. If he’d simply wanted to get from place to place, he could’ve easily occupied a seat in the back of the plane and had someone else do the flying. As most of you know, flying – even if you love it – can be a tiring activity. When he got to wherever it was he was going, Arnie didn’t go to the hotel room and call it a day. He got to work playing golf, designing courses, making deals, and doing whatever business was before him. The depth of experience in his logbook indicates someone who had a passion for flight which went far beyond the financial and business benefits it engendered. How can you not love a guy like that?

But Palmer earned my highest respect after the 2008 financial crisis. He loudly defended GA in general, and business aviation in particular, with his voice and bank account in its darkest hour. From where I sit, business aviation has always been easy to support. The facts are simply on our side: companies which operate aircraft in furtherance of their business do better. But that wasn’t a popular position for a public figure to take in 2008.

Remember what an odd time that was? Some folks, primarily those in elected positions, were excoriating users of business aircraft at the very same time that they themselves were using them! Among those who could’ve spoken up, most people kept their mouths shut, or – as executives from the Big Three automakers did – groveled an apology for using business aviation as though it was a crime against humanity.

Arnold Palmer was proof of that business aviation pays dividends. While this may be self-evident to anyone who takes an honest look at it today, he was using aviation to further his business in the mid-late 1950s. It was almost unheard of back then. The business aviation industry didn’t really exist yet. The first Learjet flew in 1963. Even Grumman’s famous Gulfstream turboprop, one of the first serious purpose-built business aircraft, didn’t begin deliveries until about 1960.

Palmer was on the leading edge of aviation every bit as much as with his golf career. It’s almost as if he saw the future. You’ll see that same look in his eye in the many famous photos of him on the golf course, that easy smile which says he knows the answer and is fully confident in the direction he’s heading.

He’ll be missed by people who’ve never even played golf and wouldn’t know how to use a nine iron if their life depended on it. I know because I’m one of ‘em.

Thanks for everything, Arnie…

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

We’re all instructors

I don’t know if this meets the definition of an official “pilot shortage,” but if anecdotal evidence is worth anything, my company is adding pilots and airplanes at a rapid rate. We’re already one of the biggest large-cabin charter companies in the business — and still growing.

You can see the same thing happening all over the country. A friend who flies for a competing charter company recently attended an industry job fair and said business at his booth was “very slow”. He indicated that it was hard to find pilot candidates if you were a corporate, charter, or regional entity. The major airlines seem to be beating the bushes for people as well. JetBlue has an ab initio program, and airlines have partnered with flight schools large and small (including one I used to work for) in order to find a pipeline for new aviators. Another friend of mine, recently hired by Southwest Airlines, said there were a number of no-shows in his class.

Plenty of people saw this coming. The financing options for pilot training rapidly dried up when the 2008 economic crisis hit, and for a number of years, relatively few people had the wherewithal to pursue flying. As a result, there weren’t many new pilots created in the 2008-2012 time frame. Meanwhile, professional aviators continued to age out, retire, pass away, lose medicals, change careers, and so on.

So if you’re an aspiring pilot seeking an experienced instructor, you might find the pickings are rather scarce. Ironically, the odds of finding a highly qualified CFI are probably better if you’re looking for some kind of specialty training, since teachers in those nooks often make a career out of it.

I’d imagine this problem is going to get a lot worse before it gets better – if it ever does. A former student of mine who’s been trying to earn his instructor certificate has been run through the wringer by a number of unprofessional operations and individuals. The list of drops, no-shows, and abusive behavior by those charged (and being well paid) to mold him into a first-class CFI is long and varied. His story is so compelling that I’ve encouraged him to write about the experience once he’s done. I suspect my friend is not the only one in that particular boat and that his tale will ring true with many pilots in the training pipeline.

What surprises me most is not where you’ll find the bad instruction but rather where you’ll find the good stuff. It might not be where you think. Take the corporate/charter world, for example. The PIC on a jet aircraft is pretty much required to have an Airline Transport Certificate these days. The FAA thinks highly enough of an ATP that they are allowed to provide formal dual instruction to other pilots in the course of charter and/or airline service, even without a flight instructor certificate or any other teaching experience (see 14 CFR 61.167).

I don’t know how often this kind of instruction takes place on an official level, but the reality is that every co-pilot is a captain-in-training, so most PICs will find themselves doing a fair bit of mentoring and teaching in the cockpit.

As I look back on my flying career, I think I’ve seen as much competent and effective instruction from non-CFI ATPs as I have from those who’ve been through FAA-sanctioned instructor training. It pains me to say that, because I’m a CFI myself. Teaching is not only a passion but one of the things I’m most proud of as a pilot. I wish I could say otherwise, but there are many sub-par CFIs out there. Oh, they probably have the knowledge and even the experience, but without consistent professionalism toward and dedication to their student, none of that matters.

To put it plainly, the fact that a person has a flight instructor certificate in their wallet doesn’t make them a good teacher. Likewise, the lack of formal CFI training shouldn’t infer an inability to instruct effectively.

One of my favorite teachers, James Albright, is a guy who has undoubtedly forgotten more about flying than I’ll ever know. I’ve never taken a course from him. In fact, I’ve never even met the guy. But I’ve read his books, articles and posts. He’s been kind enough to reply to email inquiries, too. As a result, I’ve learned many things that were not a part of my formal aviation education.

And that’s what this post is really about: the fact that we are all teachers. We’re all instructors, whether we know it or not. Oh, we may not be signing logbooks or endorsements, but every time we fly, there are people watching us. Every time we open our mouths, they’re listening. Coworkers, passengers, fellow pilots – present and future. They’re observing us and learning something – even if it’s simply what not to do, how not to fly. As incident and accident reports show us, that can be a powerful lesson, too.

So the question is, what kind of instructor are you?

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 8,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.
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