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Category: Ron Rapp (page 1 of 5)

Adventures in flying

I’m always puzzled by the awe with which so many people—some of them pilots themselves—regard those of us who regularly fly to other continents.

From Day One, there was clearly nothing superhuman to me about the feat, especially given the incredible capability and redundancy of the equipment we operate. Modern business jets are as well equipped as any airliner. Sometimes better, in fact. There are backups for everything, and then backups for the backups, and procedures for dealing with even those systems, should they go south. All this on an aircraft where a failure of any consequential item is already extraordinarily rare.

As I’ve noted previously, the most challenging part of the job isn’t the flying. Rather, it’s keeping up with the varied rules and regulations for each country’s airspace. The customs and immigration procedures. The layers and layers of administrative tasks. The language barriers, time zone changes, and so on. The actual flying becomes the predictable, straightforward aspect of it all. And I have absolutely no problem with that. It ought to be boring, because that’s the level of safety expected for modern day commercial air travel.

So that’s the long way of saying I wouldn’t be too impressed by “extended range” flying. If you want impressive, let me tell you about a long-time friend and student of mine. We got to know one another when he appeared on my schedule for a primary aerobatic course, where he mastered loops, rolls, spins, and loop/roll combinations like the Immelmann, split S, and barrel roll.

I also taught him to fly tailwheel aircraft, and in retrospect it’s one of the most significant endorsements I’ve ever provided. Later, I was his CFI during commercial certificate training. The following year, he bought a beautifully restored 1929 Travel Air 4000 biplane, and I provided some instruction in that as well.

Note the concave curve to the lower wing of this Travel Air biplane

If you’re not familiar with the Travel Air, it’s a link to the earliest days of aviation. I’ve seen the original bill of sale for the aircraft: It was signed by Walter Beech. Yeah, that Walter Beech. The lower surface of the wing has a concave curve to it, as many early airfoil designs did. And although the original Wright J-6 powerplant since has been replaced by the more ubiquitous Continental W670 radial, it’s still a 90-year-old tube-and-fabric, open-cockpit antique. On a good day, you’ll get 85 mph out of in cruise.

That’s to say the airplane isn’t much good for going anywhere. Or at least, that’s what I always thought. As far as I know, my friend never ventured too far away with the Travel Air… until one day when he called and asked a few questions about international procedures, equipment requirements for Europe, VFR airspace, and charts for the Continent. I assumed he was going to be taking some lessons at a local flight school over there.

Charles Lindbergh and his Travel Air biplane

Nope. He was having his Travel Air shipped to England so he could fly it VFR across the Channel and the rest of Europe toward Greece. Then from Crete, across the Mediterranean to Egypt, and down the full length of the African continent to Cape Town, South Africa.

I’ll be honest, my first thought was, “Is this a joke?” My second was, “Are you crazy?” And my third: “How are you going to get approval for any of this?” My jet will make a trip like that, but it comes with a team of professionals to handle the permits, fees, rules, permissions, and mounds of paperwork that always accompany such a journey. I wondered what a flight risk analysis app would say about a trip like this.

On further investigation, he was joining a group of intrepid barnstormers who were re-creating the early 20th century mail routes that ran the length of Africa. They called it the Vintage Air Rally. As I remember, my friend described it to me as “a little adventure.” Boy, was it ever.

But it gets better. When the rally ended in Cape Town, the other pilots had their airplanes disassembled and shipped back home—”home” being places which were, for the most part, a lot closer to South Africa than southern California. My friend? He decided to fly back to England. On his own.

Here’s a map he sent me after reaching the United Kingdom. I stared at that image for a long time. Imagine the weather, the unimproved strips, the mechanical issues, and so on that he had experienced. I know at least one aircraft on the Vintage Air Rally crashed.

My friend regaled me for an hour with stories about being detained for days after a bit of paperwork was not where it should have been. Another time he suffered a broken crankshaft in flight. After a safe landing, he had a new engine sourced, shipped, and installed by his mechanic (who flew all the way from California and arrived at the same time the engine did) within a day or two. He had encounters with instrument conditions, extreme density altitudes, and winds we rarely see back home.

On the other hand, his tale also included moments like landing in the dirt of a remote village only to find the people there had never seen an airplane before and didn’t know what his machine was. Can you imagine giving a ride to a kid who has no concept of what an aircraft is, who has never seen even a photograph of one before?

The air rally participants received permission to make close flybys of normally restricted wonders like the Egyptian pyramids and Victoria Falls. And just by virtue of the low altitude and VFR flying, they saw things from the air I’ll never see in my airplane.

By the time he had completed the trip and was ready to crate his biplane, if memory serves he had flown something like 15,000 miles across some of the most challenging and inspiring terrain on Earth. To me, this is the kind of adventure I imagine when the word “awe” is uttered. Even the earthrounders aren’t as impressive, because they’re usually flying much more capable equipment and operate out of established airports. This air rally was barnstormers writ large, and I doubt anything will top it in the flying careers of those who participated.

I told my friend that there are pilots, and then there are aviators. His experiences made him the latter and were ones that could not be duplicated or taught. Perhaps that’s what made them so special.

As far as I was concerned, from now on, he should be teaching me. I dunno if that comment played a part in what comes next, but he’s now working on his flight instructor certificate.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ 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.

Why Choose Business Aviation?

I’m often asked: Why pursue a career in business aviation? Most professional pilots measure their career with two metrics: compensation and quality-of-life. If scheduled airlines provide more of one or both of these, why would any right-thinking pilot consider private, charter, or corporate flying as anything other than a stepping stone to a Part 121 gig?

It’s a good question. I suppose those of us who work in this corner of general aviation have our own reasons. From where I sit, business flying offers aviators a much richer arena of jobs, destinations, lifestyles, insights, technologies, and so on. For example, we tend to be more intimately involved in maintenance, outfitting and refurbishment, and management. We see firsthand the benefits our work provides to those who employ us. And there’s something to be said for job satisfaction as a result.

A typical crew meal

We have access to some of the latest and greatest equipment in the skies, aircraft that fly higher, faster, and further than anything else in the civilian world. The next non-military supersonic aircraft isn’t going to be an airliner. It’ll be a business jet. Get in one and you’re likely to have a more comfortable seat, better in-flight service, faster airborne internet, better food, larger windows, and lower cabin altitudes than an airliner. Those things aren’t just for the passengers. I’ve often said, “Nobody ever goes hungry on a Gulfstream,” and so far I’ve been right.

I also love business aviation for the behind-the-scenes look it offers at the how and why of aircraft operation. The general public wonders who these people are that fly privately, where they’re going, and why they’re using such an expensive mode of transportation. I know the answers to those questions because I’m right in the thick of it all.

I’d be the last one to suggest that flying is boring, but some pilots do start to feel that way after a while. In business aviation, there are myriad opportunities to expand one’s horizons. For example, as the lead pilot on my aircraft, I have access to management statements and review them for accuracy each month. It’s enlightening, to say the least. After doing this for a number of years, you’d think I’d get used to the size of the figures contained therein… but I never do. The cost of operating a business aircraft is astronomical, yet so many companies own them anyway. I know these people; most of them are not splurging. The value they extract from operating the jet simply makes the expense economically worthwhile.

Business aviation careers build valuable relationships and sometimes lead to “bigger, better things” (as if there’s anything bigger or better than flying!). I know numerous pilots that have gone on to start their own charter or aircraft management firms, brokerages, training operations, consulting gigs, or assisting in purchase/sale transactions. Others have moved into management positions. Each of these can be far more financially lucrative than flying for a living. Me, I have some sweet writing jobs that I probably wouldn’t have been approached for were it not for my work in this business.

One of the best parts about a business aviation career is the opportunity to be recognized and rewarded for your own job performance rather than simply exist as a seniority number and miniscule cog in an enormous machine. Even the largest publicly-owned companies have relatively small flight departments, and that means people know your name. They can offer opportunities that cater to your desires and talents because they are aware of what your wants and capabilities are. And if they don’t? You can move horizontally within the industry. A new job doesn’t have to mean starting all over at the bottom of the heap.

Though they’re improving steadily, I don’t know if bizav will, on average, ever rival the total career compensation or quality-of-life you might be able to get with a major scheduled airline. That’s one of the major impediments the industry is dealing with in its effort to recruit and retain talented individuals. But I do know this: Business aviation offers many things that can tilt the value proposition in that direction, if you’re willing to do a little digging.

As Scully and Mulder said, the truth is out there.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ 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.

Paranoia Pays Off

Normally, paranoia is considered unhealthy. As it pertains to flying, however, in my experience a moderate dose can keep the doctor away much like the proverbial apple. It’ll keep the FAA, NTSB, and unemployment line at arm’s length as well.

There are so many things to be concerned with when aviating that I find great benefit in prioritizing them all by asking: Can this kill me? The answer will vary with the kind of airplane I’m flying, of course. This is where a regular reading of safety and accident reports can pay dividends.

In an aerobatic airplane, the No. 1 killer is the pilot himself. So no showboating, low flying, or things that being with “watch this.” From a preflight standpoint (and the preflight always takes longer than the actual flight where aerobatics is concerned), the canopy latches, fuel selector, and flight controls are high on the list, as is a thorough inspection of the cockpit and tail cone area for any foreign object debris. Those are the things which, historically, have led pilots to grief in those airplanes. I once had a flight control system failure in the middle of an aerobatic sequence. It gets your attention rather quickly.

In the Gulfstream, the top spot goes to the pressurization system. This is a component that keeps the crew alive just as surely as the wings. We cruise at altitudes much higher than the average airlines, where there’s precious few seconds of useful consciousness if a sudden loss of pressure is experienced. But even more insidious is the slow depressurization as it often goes unnoticed until physiological impairment is already at work.

There have been so many accidents related to pressurization, and quite often they’re fatal. Recently an Air China 737 dropped the masks because the first officer decided to vape in the cockpit and, not understanding how the pressurization system worked, shut it off inadvertently. Instead of diverting, they completed the flight without any oxygen for the passengers after reactivating the packs. Unsafe? Yes, and illegal, too. As many politicians have learned the hard way, the coverup is always worse than the initial crime.

I’m also paranoid about the galley oven and microwave on my Gulfstream. Fire in an airplane is really bad. Just the other day on the way to Hawaii, our flight attendant forgot to remove labels from a catering order and almost caught the containers on fire. Rookie mistake? Hardly. This flight attendant is highly experienced, and I’m sure she’s not alone in having made this particular error. We’re all aware that a moment’s carelessness can lead to serious consequences, but it’s vital to remember that this is as true for flight attendants, passengers, and ground crew as it is for pilots.

I try to think of other ways things can catch on fire, too. We have Firebane and a FireSock for containment of lithium battery fires from portable devices. I’ve also often rehearsed what I’d do if a fire or burning smell was detected from an unknown source, practiced the emergency descents every recurrent, and so on. My record is FL450 to 15,000 feet msl in a minute and 43 seconds. The particular Gulfstream model I fly is at somewhat of a disadvantage over newer large cabin iterations in that there’s no “automatic descent mode.” That’s an additional risk factor. We have to get the masks on in time, every time, because the airplane has no backup technology to save us.

I’m also paranoid about things like access panels, chocks, gear pins, and the like. Those won’t necessarily cause an accident, but in my experience they’re by far the most commonly missed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen fuelers leave the single point refueling door open. We see safety reports about that stuff constantly at my company.

I’m paranoid about what’s behind the airplane. I always perform a final walk around prior to closing the door, and note what’s in the path of the airplane’s jet blast. I fly tailwheel airplanes and have seen them damaged by jets, especially at small congested fields like my home airport (John Wayne-Orange County Airport) where it’s not uncommon to have a Global or Gulfstream starting up with a Citabria less than a hundred feet behind it. I love those small airplanes!

I’m paranoid about landing on the wrong runway. I’ve intervened to save three pilots from that on various occasions. “Cleared for the visual” always gets the hair on the back of my neck standing up. I personally witnessed a Boeing 757 land at the wrong airport in Arizona once at an aerobatic contest. It happens to the pros and non-professionals in equal measure.

I’m paranoid about hitting things during taxi. The G-IV/G-450 wings are not nearly as long as the V/550/650, but relying on a wing walker or marshaller still gives me pause, especially if any of the “big three” risk factors are present: night conditions, obstacles, and/or an unfamiliar ramp. I’ve told everyone on my crew “if you’re in doubt in any way about clearance from objects, stop and shut down the plane. They can tow it the rest of the way.” And if it hits something then? Well, that’s on them.

I’m paranoid about instrument clearances. I always try to have both pilots present when the clearance is received via voice, and we verify what we’ve heard and the routing prior to departure. We see a lot of lateral navigation deviances in our Event Review Committee meetings, and from what I understand that’s true for every Aviation Safety Action Program in the industry. I say “try” because despite my best efforts, I’ve been given IFR clearances when I didn’t want them. Sometimes just calling the delivery frequency to see if the clearance is even available via PDC will prompt them to start reading it to you via voice.

Most of all, I’m paranoid about scheduling pressure, especially in the Part 135 “on demand” environment. This never comes from my company; it’s always self-induced. So: Don’t rush. If the passengers show up early, there’s a mechanical issue, the lead passenger is demanding, etc., well, that’s when things can go sideways easily. I try to slow down, take a deep breath, and be extra methodical. Never skip any checklist. If the passengers are late, they’re late. I’ve been screamed at by an aircraft owner over this. I was nice about it, but basically said, “Too bad.” It’s easy to say, but much harder to stick to in a real-world operating environment. It seems to be baked into human DNA and has to be fought constantly, consistently, and methodically.

It takes a lifetime to build up a decent reputation as a pilot, and just a few careless moments to destroy it. As Joseph Heller famously wrote in his seminal novel Catch-22, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ 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.

Health risks for business jet crews

It’s long been known that flight at high altitudes exposes flight crew and passengers alike to greater levels of radiation than they normally experience on the surface, but a recent Harvard study on the prevalence of cancers among flight attendants has brought the subject into the spotlight once more. It’s been picked up by a wide variety of publications from outside the aviation world. To be honest, I’m a little surprised at their interest in the health of flight crew members.

If you’re flying a real (aka light GA) airplane rather than a modern, automated turbojet, you might not have given the subject much thought. But turbojets operate near or above the tropopause (which varies in altitude from 23,000 to 65,000 depending on location and time of year). This places them well above most of the Earth’s protective atmosphere, and therefore at greater exposure to direct sunlight, cosmic ionizing radiation, and so on. Unfortunately, the preventative measures we use on the ground – sunscreen, long shirts, hats, sunglasses, etc. – don’t provide protection from all of these perils.

For an occasional passenger, the risk is fairly negligible. But for those of us who make their living working on an aircraft, the conclusions offered by this paper are quite concerning. The Harvard study, which has been ongoing since 2007, found the following:

“Despite low smoking and obesity levels indicative of positive health behaviors, we report that flight attendants have elevated rates of several cancers, especially breast, melanoma, and non-melanoma skin cancers. These results are consistent with previous findings regarding flight crew health. Ours is the first study to report an elevated rate of non-melanoma skin cancer in a U.S. flight attendant cohort (consistent with European studies). Some of these cancers were also related to tenure as a flight attendant, overall or within subgroups of parity in the case of breast cancer.”

They also note that “…cabin crew have the largest annual ionizing radiation dose of all U.S. workers (e.g. 3.07 mSv vs. 0.59 mSv for U.S. Department of Energy workers). These exposures can easily exceed guidelines released by the NCRP or the International Commission on Radiological Protection.”

The authors of the study don’t claim to fully understand the impact of each risk factor, but I was impressed by their inclusion of other carcinogens flight attendants may be exposed to: pesticides, jet fuel, various chemicals found in uniforms, fire-proofed soft goods, and so on. They also noted the constant disruption to normal circadian rhythms as a risk factor for cancer.

As anyone who’s worked in the industry can probably tell you, the circadian issue is a major one when it comes to the adverse effect on fatigue, quality of life, and long-term health. Other studies have documented how an abnormal circadian rhythm disrupts the body’s ability to fight of illness and disease at a cellular level. The body simply cannot work as designed when work schedules alternate randomly from night to day and back again.

Even when the schedule is steady, if it’s a constant diet of night flying, the body suffers. I once asked a former long-haul cargo pilot if he ever got used to working at night all the time. His response: “Not really. You can always feel it sucking the life out of you.” This anecdotal evidence is backed up by scientific studies which have led the International Agency for Research on Cancer to classify shift work which disrupts normal circadian rhythms to be classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Anyway, I’ve been asked about the Harvard study by several coworkers, who wonder about the correlation between flight attendants and the pilots up front. While the study did not address aviators directly, there’s no reason to suspect the folks in the cockpit are any better off when it comes to radiation exposure.

However, it seems logical to assume there may be significant differences in pilot risk depending on the kind of flying being done. A typical domestic Part 121 airline pilot might log 900 hours per year, whereas a charter pilot will only fly half that amount. There are plenty of Part 91 operators who fly 200 hours a year. Or less. Fewer hours at high altitude translate into reduced exposure to radiation.

On the other hand, some business aircraft fly much higher than a typical airliner. A Boeing or Airbus will ply the mid 30s, while many bizjets will climb directly into the low 40s, and can eventually reach as high as 51,000 feet if the weather requires it.

The trend with new business aircraft seems to be toward higher altitudes and longer ranges. While this capability is a boon for safety, it also means even greater exposure to radiation aloft. And as supersonic aircraft enter the inventory, it wouldn’t surprise me to see these airplanes cruising around 60,000 feet.

It’s an exciting time to be part of the aviation industry, but the incessant march toward higher/longer/faster flying comes with risks, some of which may not yet be fully appreciated by those of us who will fly them.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ 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 Chicken or the Egg?

It seems to me we’re at a bit of a tipping point with the GA ecosystem. There simply aren’t enough instructors around to solve the pilot shortage. And without enough pilots, we certainly won’t have a sufficient supply of instructors.

I know of a half dozen people just at my local FBO—mainly line service, flight attendants, and office personnel—who already work in the aviation sector, see the shortage, and want to be part of the solution.

But they can’t, because they go through instructors like a mouse through cheese. Every time I talk to one of them, my queries about how their training is progressing are met with the same reply: I just lost my instructor, and I’m not sure where the next one is going to come from. Then there’s a multi-week or -month delay while they’re hooked up with a fresh instructor, who flies with them briefly before leaving for a regional airline.

It begs the question: What happens when you run out of commercial pilot certificate holders to turn into CFIs? It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario, but the problem is a serious one, because eventually, it will encourage airlines to find their own solutions, one of which will likely be ab intio. I foresaw this four years ago and wrote about it. Will it solve the airline’s labor needs? Yes. And it will damage general aviation in the process.

So what’s my beef with this method of training? To put it simply, in an era of atrophying pilot skills, ab-initio is going to make a bad problem worse. While it’s a proven way of ensuring a steady supply of labor, ab initio also produces a relatively narrow pilot who is trained from day one to do a single thing: Fly an airliner. These airline programs don’t expose trainees to high Gs, aerobatics, gliders, seaplanes, banner towing, tailwheels, instructing, or any of the other stuff that helps create a well-rounded aviator.

If airlines in the U.S. adopt the ab initio system, the pilots they hire will only experience things that are a) legally required, and b) directly applicable to flying a modern, automated airliner. Nothing else. After all, an airline will only invest what’s necessary to do the job. It’s a business decision. And in an era of cutthroat competition and razor thin profit margins, who could blame them?

The problem is, all those “crap” jobs young fliers complain about (and veterans seem to look back on with a degree of fondness) are vital seasoning for a pilot. He or she is learning to make command decisions, interact with employers and customers, and generally figure out the art of flying. It’s developing that spidey sense, taking a few hard knocks in the industry, and learning to distinguish between safe and legal.

These years don’t pay well where one’s bank account is concerned, but they create a different type of wealth, one that’s often invisible and can prove vital when equipment stops working, weather is worse than forecast, or the holes in your Swiss cheese model start to line up.

Thus far, airline ab initio programs haven’t been a major part of the landscape here in the U.S. because our aviation sector is fairly robust. We are blessed with flying jobs which build the experience, skill, and time necessary for larger, more complex aircraft. But it’s easy to see why it might become an attractive option for airlines. For one thing, that darn pilot shortage. The cost of flying has risen dramatically over the past decade while the benefits (read: money) remain too low for too long. Airlines can cure the shortage by training pilots from zero hours… but at what cost?

Coming up through the ranks used to mean you were almost certain to be exposed to some of those elements. That’s why I believe ab initio would be just one more nail in the coffin of U.S. aviation, one more brick in the road of turning us into Europe. While I like visiting the continent, I do not envy the size or scope of their aviation sector and sincerely hope we don’t go down that path.

My writing here on the AOPA blog is centered on business aviation, but I’m touching on this issue because it’s a problem that will affect everyone who flies. In fact, I recently mentioned it in AOPA Pilot Turbine Edition. It’s getting hard not to, actually.

I was having a Twitter discussion with a fellow instructor about how to improve the situation. We were ticking off reasons that there aren’t more CFIs:

1) Many flight schools have closed, victims of the financial crisis of the last decade.
2) The airlines are vacuuming up all the relatively high-time CFIs
3) It takes longer and costs more to become a CFI than ever before
4) Compensation for CFIs is, on the average, quite low
5) High-time, retired, second-career, experienced instructors tend to be older, have higher net worth, and are concerned about insurance and liability issues
6) A lack of respect for CFIs, who are viewed as fungible, entry-level workers

The long-term solution will require investment in the grade school kids, getting them out to the airport when they’re young. Bringing aviation-centric STEM curriculum into the schools. Starting to equalize the 95-to-5 ratio of men to women in the cockpit. But there are also short-term solutions:

1. Reduce the cost of learning to fly, but do so in a way that doesn’t cut into the CFI’s meager compensation. The best, fastest, and easiest way to do this? Change planes. Ditch the SR22 and replace it with a Champ, Citabria, Cub, or other dirt-simple tailwheel design. It will turn out pilots with better stick-and-rudder skills, and reduce the hourly cost of the airplane by $100 or more. Now take that money and put it in the CFI’s pocket. Or split the savings between the student and his or her instructor.

2. Targeted tort reform to assuage the concerns of the retired professional pilots, post-retirement instructors, and others who have the experience we want in our CFIs.

3. Create an industrywide CFI insurance pool to ensure strong liability insurance is available at reasonable cost.

4. Start seeing instructors for what they truly are: the steel girders which hold the aviation world aloft. The base of the pyramid. The very foundation. The ones who determine just how good an aviator that airline, charter, corporate, military, or private pilot will be when you and your loved ones are aboard.

5. The problem of lack of flight schools will solve itself when the demand is there.

6. In many, perhaps most, places, the CFI training process is appallingly long. I know instructors are important from a safety standpoint, but what they do is neither rocket science or brain surgery, so it shouldn’t take as long to earn an instructor certificate as it does to get a PhD.

Has the workforce imbalance reached the point where it can’t be turned around? That’s a question I can’t answer. But I look at my 3-year-old son and think how incredibly sad it would be to know our generation used the world’s finest general aviation system to it’s fullest… and then watched as the ladder came up behind us.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ 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.

Uneven STARs

I’m often surprised at the widely varying quality of domestic Standard Terminal Arrival procedures. The name makes for a good acronym (“STAR”), but from an aviator’s perspective there’s precious little about them that is standard. Some are simple and pilot friendly, whereas others can be downright awful.

There are reasons why each STAR is set up the way it is. These procedures must interface with both the en route structure (aka airways) and the terminal environment while respecting terrain, airspace, and other such limitations. And you’d think between satellite navigation and modern avionics, it would be possible to fly just about anything with ease.

If only.

Bizjet pilots who fly into the NYC area will recognize this STAR. Whether they like it, however, is another story altogether…

Anyone who flies a business jet is undoubtedly familiar with the WILKES-BARRE FOUR arrival. Most of us who utilize this procedure are headed into Teterboro (KTEB), but it also serves a number of other greater New York area general aviation airports, including Morristown, Linden, Princeton, Somerset, and Solberg.

To me, the WILKES-BARRE FOUR has always been the penultimate example of a poorly designed STAR. It’s almost as if whoever conceived this procedure was unaware of (or chose to ignore) the realities of operating a high-performance turbojet.

The procedure has arriving aircraft flying east, and in this part of the country tailwinds are often quite high at altitude. In fact, they often increase rather than decrease as we descend. I’ve seen more than 150 knots on the tail while being sent direct to HOXIE, STENT, or the Wilkes-Barre VOR.

You can probably already see the first problem: My 460 knot true airspeed has combined with the tailwind to give me a ground speed of more than 600 knots. That’s nearly 700 mph. Slick airplanes don’t want to “go down and slow down” at the same time, and there’s precious little drag on a Gulfstream.

Not only is the procedure itself a problem, but the way it’s used by ATC amplifies the difficulty. Due to the quantity of arrivals into Newark, JFK, and La Guardia, we’re almost never allowed to fly anything like an optimized descent profile. Instead we’re given descent clearance either very early or very late.

If it’s early, no problem. I can fly that, although it’s very inefficient to be at low altitude so far from the airport. (Side note: I was returning to New York from Sao Paulo very early one morning and ATC had us descend to 3,000 feet msl. When we leveled, off, I looked at the FMS and noted that we were still nearly 300 nm from Teterboro. We were out of sight of land, and I was only half-joking when I told the controller, “I’m not sure who we offended, but I apologize.”)

You’d think the heavy traffic and high tailwinds would call for the WILKES-BARRE FOUR to be one of the more precisely designed and utilized STARs in existence, but it seems to be the exact opposite. Instead, we’ll sometimes be held high until well past a normal top-of-descent point and then instructed to cross MUGZY at 6,000 feet. There have been plenty of occasions when even with the power at idle and the speed brakes deployed for the entire seven mile vertical descent from cruise altitude, I still cannot make the 6,000 foot restriction because we’ve got to slow to 250 knots prior to descending through 10,000 feet.

While I understand the challenges controllers, airspace designers, and traffic managers are dealing with, there are limits to what an aircraft can physically accomplish, and this arrival procedure often pushes those boundaries on a regular basis. I’ve had to use the words “unable” more often on the WILKES-BARRE arrival than any other procedure I can think of.

The polar opposite of the WILKES-BARRE are procedures like the PUFFER FOUR arrival into Denver. This STAR has a variety of measured step downs, and it slows the aircraft to the 250 knot speed limit before pushing through the 10,000-foot barrier. If anything, it slows the aircraft a bit too early, although with the turbulence generated by the Rockies, it’s often a welcome restriction which feels tailor-made to the prevalent conditions for that area. I’d also note that this procedure allows for both north and south arrivals.

Some STARs are just a mystery. Not so much in how they look on paper, but in how they’re used in real life. As evidence, allow me to present the LYNXX EIGHT arrival procedure into Van Nuys. VNY is the west coast equivalent of Teterboro—the corporate jet and charter hub for the greater Los Angeles area.

I’ve flown this procedure a hundred times, and not once have I ever flow it as charted or been cleared to “descend via.” Even at 2 a.m., the controller will still given direct-to various waypoints and verbally provide each altitude change, often in 1,000-foot increments. I’m sure there’s a reason for it—probably north and south crossing traffic between the high desert and Los Angeles basin—but if this is to be the case, why bother designing or assigning this STAR at all?

I doubt the issue can be blamed entirely on crowded metropolitan areas with demanding layers of airspace, because one of my favorite arrivals is the DSNEE THREE arrival into my home field, John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California. I’ve almost always been cleared to descend via, and the arrival navigates the high terrain around Palm Springs as well as the crowded LAX arrival corridor and other SoCal airspace with both elegance and ease, providing a beautiful transition into what’s usually a visual approach for Runway 20R.

I always end up wondering why more STARs can’t be like that, both in how they’re designed and used by air traffic control. If a STAR is awkward and inefficient for the pilot, it’s probably no prize for the guy on the other side of the radio either.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that STARs are like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: You just never know what you’re going to get.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ 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 Pilot’s Best Friend

If I had to put together a “top 10” list of work-related questions fired at me by friends and family, many of the queries would be unsurprising:

  • “Flown anywhere exciting lately?” (Does home count?)
  • “Do you need a second pilot, or can you fly the airplane by yourself?” (The G-IV requires two pilots)
  • “Can you take your wife or kid along?” (Not unless it’s an empty leg.)
  • “How many people can it seat?” (It’s certified for up to 19, but most interiors are setup for 13-15 passengers)
  • “How far can it fly?” (About 4,300 nautical miles, assuming no wind)
    “How high can it go?” (45,000 feet)
  • “Can you fly outside the United States?” (The aircraft is capable of operating worldwide, and our OpSpecs allow for that as well)

One of the most interesting questions, at least from my perspective, is whether we have a flight attendant aboard. The answer isn’t as easy as a simple “yes” or “no.”

When the airplane is being chartered, a FA is always aboard – primarily for the safety and comfort of the passengers. The safety part is fairly obvious: If a passenger falls ill, a cabin fire breaks out, a ditching occurs, etc., they can focus on the pax while the pilots worry about the flying.

Of course, emergencies of that ilk are as rare as hen’s teeth. The primary role they play in day-to-day operation is ensuring the passengers have a pleasant experience. From serving food and drink to putting on a movie, setting up beds, locating games, card decks, pillows, blankets, and the thousand other items we carry, they’re helping the customers enjoy a first-class travel experience.

If it’s a Part 91 trip being flown by the owner of the aircraft, a flight attendant is not typically needed or requested. On complicated international trips or when the passenger manifest is long, a flight attendant will sometimes be requested even by the owner in order to make the trip run more smoothly.

Over the years, I’ve come to think of corporate/charter flight attendants as the forgotten soldiers of the business aviation industry, which is ironic because they’re the hardest working and lowest paid members of the flight crew.

They often show up long before the pilots do. Charter trips are often beset with complicated and specific meal requests, which sometimes even our best caterers cannot accommodate, so they’ll shop for and prep those things themselves. They take the time to research the passengers, determine their preferences, dislikes, allergies, and even decorate the cabin for special events. They deal with brokers, which can be a challenge all its own.

Flowers seem to follow flight attendants like cigarette smoke in a Mad Men episode. You can hardly find one without the other. I’ve flown to the most ill-equipped and destitute third world countries, places were even clean water was a luxury, and somehow the FA will still find a perfect collection of flowers.

The best flight attendants are preppers. They’re the ones you’d want to be with during a zombie apocalypse. They’ll have contingency plans, backups to the backups, special gifts for little kids, and a dozen other things I never would have considered.

But flight attendants get my respect not only because so many of them go above and beyond even the high levels of service expected by passengers – not an easy thing to do – but because they’re dealing with human beings.

That sounds obvious, but think about it: People are unpredictable. Sometimes the folks coming up the air stair are as pleasant as can be. At other times, the passengers have had a rough day and they’re a lot harder to please. As a pilot, when I press a button, flip a switch, or turn a knob, the equipment will respond in a very predictable way. There are no variances. I can bank on specific behavior from the hardware. People are quite the opposite, and as anyone who’s traveled extensively can tell you, living out of a suitcase and changing time zones takes a toll on the body. That fact is as true for the passengers as for the crew.

Flight attendants also take care of the guys up front, usually taking the time to prepare something for the pilots to eat, and frequently checking in with the cockpit to see if we would like a snack or something to drink. I always tell my copilots that I’ve never gone hungry on a Gulfstream, and we probably won’t start today. That’s due to the thoughtfulness and hard work of corporate flight attendants.

On layovers, the FAs have often researched the area and know where to eat, what to do, and so on. I recall a last minute trip to the World Cup in Brazil where our FA was so determined to get us tickets to one of the matches that she stayed up all night just to keep searching for a decent trio of passes to a sold out game between Switzerland and France. Sure enough, she hit pay dirt.

I’d like to think a good pilot will recognize and take care of the flight attendant, ensuring they are not abused by the passengers and receive support in dealing with the FBO, stocking the aircraft, or even little things like walking them to their car at night.

We’re a team, and I always feel better when I know a good FA is part of the crew.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ 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.

Stupid Pilot Tricks

I’ve been flying turbine aircraft for more than a decade now (jeez, time flies!), and with few exceptions, those with whom I’ve shared the cockpit have operated in the consistently safe and professional manner one would expect from an aviator who makes their living flying airplanes.

You’d think this would go without saying, but unfortunately corporate and charter pilots don’t always have the resources or limitations you’d find at a major airline. As the Bedford G-IV accident illustrates, this is especially true of private (Part 91) flight departments. Some of them are run as professionally as any Part 121 airline, while others… well, let’s just say they leave something to be desired when it comes to standards, training, and safety culture.

But every now and then you come across something so egregious that you almost can’t believe what you’re seeing. For example, take a look at this sequence of photographs, which were sent to me by a friend. This Hawker was departing from the recent NBAA convention in Las Vegas, the one place you’d expect a business aviation pilot to be on his or her best behavior.

This first frame looks like a normal takeoff.

Here’s where it starts to get interesting. The main gear are still on the runway but the nose gear retraction sequence has already started.

The nose gear is halfway retracted by the time the main landing gear leaves the runway.

Main gear retraction begins the instant lift off occurs. You can see the main gear doors are already opening.

The nose wheel is almost stowed, and the mains are folding inward. How much indication of a positive rate of climb does the crew have at this point?

Gear is mostly retracted and altitude is perhaps a couple of feet above ground. At least the flaps are still down.

Spoke too soon! Flaps are retracted and a steep turn initiated abeam the NBAA static display. Looks to be little more than a wingspan above the dirt.

The coup de grâce, a banked turn of perhaps 80 degrees over the area north of the field, which is now primarily residential housing.

I don’t fly Hawkers, but ran it by some friends who do. None of us could think of any scenario where raising the landing gear handle prior to takeoff would be acceptable practice. There’s nothing to be gained from doing it. At that point the only thing preventing the gear from folding up are a couple of squat switches. They’re not exactly the most robust and durable components on an aircraft, and they live in a dirty, windy, vibration-prone environment. To say this pilot was taking a gamble would be charitable.

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with some mitigating circumstance to explain this. Is it possible the gear handle could have been raised inadvertently? Or that a malfunction in the system could have caused it to begin retracting without the handle being raised? Sometimes people do unexplainable things without realizing it. It reminds me of the Virgin Galactic accident, where one of the pilots unlocked the feathering mechanism at too high a speed and it caused the entire spacecraft to break apart. As the old saying goes, “I know people do crazy things, because I’ve seen me do ‘em.”

Unfortunately, the last two photos put to bed any such thoughts. The Hawker is well into a turn at what appears to be not much more than a wingspan worth of altitude. That means the pilot started the turn as soon as he or she thought the wingtip wouldn’t drag in the dirt. And then there’s the very steep turn in the last photo, which an eyewitness – an experienced aviator in his own right – estimated at about 80 degrees of bank. That’s a clear 91.303 violation. The law defines aerobatics as “an intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft’s attitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight”. The definition is necessarily vague because of the differing performance of various aircraft. A 45 degree pitch angle may be normal Vx climb for my Pitts, but it would be abnormal for a transport category jet aircraft like the Hawker.

If that’s not enough, check out the supremely early flap retraction. Industry standard is 400 feet minimum before any configuration change.

Summary: The pilot was showing off. Which is incredibly stupid, because the airport was populated with professional aviators, many of whom are getting tired of seeing this sort of thing. A number of them are involved with flight safety initiatives and have undoubtedly read more than their share of incident and accident reports caused by just this sort of behavior.

Is it possible to fly into or out of the industry’s largest convention without understanding that a hundred cameras are trained on every arrival and departure? Perhaps they WANTED to be recorded; if so, they got their wish. The entire thing was probably recorded on the FDR, CVR, and ATC radar. Certainly, it was captured on film, probably on video somewhere too, and last but not least by the eyes of everyone who saw it.

Is it really worth sacrificing life and livelihood on a stunt like this? For some people, apparently the answer is yes. What’s most irritating is that these stupid pilot tricks give everyone in my line of work a black eye when most of us do not deserve it. So it’s up to those of us in the industry to say loud and clear that pilots who engage in these hairbrained stunts are not cool. They’re being unprofessional, unnecessarily risky, and demonstrating the exact opposite of “the right stuff.”

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ 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 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 9,000+ 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 9,000+ 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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