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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.

It’s Baffling

The email from a Cessna T210 owner read:

Suggested baffle holes

The owner of this T210 suggested making some baffle modifications to improve cooling of cylinders #5 and #6 by “giving them more air.” This would NOT have been a good idea, and would almost certainly have made things worse instead of better.

I recently had my engine rebuilt and had a new baffle kit installed. The CHTs for cylinders #5 and #6 are always 20ºF to 30ºF hotter than the rest. During climb the difference gets even bigger. Cylinder #5 and #6 CHTs are very difficult to keep below 400ºF during a climb, even with the cowl flaps open and rich mixture. Should I consider giving them some air? On cylinder #6, why not cut one or more holes in the white aluminum baffle in front of the cylinder? On cylinder #5, why not drill one or more holes in the horizontal aluminum plate located behind the oil cooler?

I replied that cutting holes in the baffles was definitely NOT a good idea, and that doing so would undoubtedly make the cooling problems worse, not better. It was apparent that the T210 owner didn’t understand how the powerplant cooling system in his aircraft works, or what the function of the baffles is. He’s not alone—some A&P mechanics don’t fully understand it, either!

Cooling: then and now

Spirit of St. Louis

Early aircraft engines were ‘velocity cooled’ by passing the slipstream over the finned cylinders. However, this simple approach to cooling is simply not practical for today’s high-performance engines and low-drag airframes.

In the early days of aviation, aircraft designers took a simple approach to the problem of cooling aircraft engines. The engines were mounted with their finned cylinders out in the slipstream and cooled by the horizontal flow of ram air. This design is known as “velocity cooling” and was adequate for cooling the low-compression single-row radial engines of the time.

As engines grew more powerful and multi-row radials and horizontally opposed engines went into service, it became obvious that simple velocity cooling wasn’t up to the job. For one thing, cooling was uneven—front cylinders got a lot more cooling airflow than rear cylinders. For another, sticking all those cylinders out in the breeze created horrendous cooling drag. A better scheme was obviously needed.

That better system was known as “pressure cooling” and is the method used in all modern piston aircraft. Pressure cooling is accomplished by placing a cowling around the engine and using a system of rigid baffles and flexible baffle seals to produce the volume and pattern of cooling airflow necessary to achieve even cooling with minimum drag.

What do baffles do?

Cooling Airflow

The heart of a modern ‘pressure-cooled’ powerplant installation is a set of rigid sheet-metal baffles and flexible baffle seals that, together with the engine cowling, divide the engine compartment into two chambers: a high-pressure area above the engine and a low-pressure area below and behind the engine. Engine cooling depends upon the vertical airflow from the upper chamber to the lower one. Cowl flaps modulate the cooling by regulating the vacuum in the low-pressure chamber.

Our modern piston aircraft are powered by tightly cowled horizontally opposed engines. Inside the cowling, a system of rigid aluminum baffles and flexible baffle seals divide the engine compartment into two chambers: a high-pressure area above the cylinders, and a low-pressure area below the cylinders and behind the engine. Cylinders are cooled by the vertical flow of air from the high-pressure above the engine to the low-pressure below it. Cooling airflow is top-to-bottom, not front-to-back.

The volume of cooling airflow that passes across the cylinders is a function of the pressure differential between the upper (high-pressure) chamber and the lower (low-pressure) chamber of the engine compartment.  This pressure differential is known as “delta-P.” Cowl flaps are often used to modulate the cooling airflow. Opening the cowl flaps reduces the air pressure in the lower chamber, thereby increasing delta-P and consequently the volume of cooling air that passes vertically across the cylinder fins.

It’s important to understand that the pressure differential between the upper and lower chambers is remarkably small: A typical high-performance piston aircraft generally relies on a delta-P of just 6 or 7 inches of water—about 1/4 PSI! Aircraft designers try to keep this delta-P to an absolute minimum, because higher delta-P means higher cooling drag.

…and so what if they don’t?

Baffle Seals

Flexible seals are used to prevent air from escaping through the gaps between the engine-mounted sheet-metal baffles and the cowling. To do their job, they must be oriented so as to curve toward the high-pressure chamber above the engine, so that air pressure pushes them tightly against the cowling.

Because the pressure differential (delta-P) on which engine cooling depends is so very small, even small leaks in the system of baffles and seals can have a serious adverse impact on engine cooling. Any missing, broken, or improperly positioned baffles or seals will degrade engine cooling by providing an alternative path for air to pass from the upper chamber to the lower chamber without flowing vertically across the cylinder cooling fins.  (This is precisely what the effect would have been had the T210 owner cut holes in his baffles, which is why I strongly discouraged the idea.)

Probably the most trouble-prone part of the cooling system is the system of flexible baffle seals. These flexible strips (usually high-temp silicone rubber) are used to seal up the gaps between the sheet metal baffles and the cowling. These gaps are necessary because the baffles move around inside the cowling as the engine rocks on its shock mounts.

To do their job, the seals must curve up and forward into the high-pressure chamber, so that the air pressure differential (delta-P) presses the seals tightly against the cowling. If the seals are permitted to curve away from the high-pressure area—not hard to do when closing up the cowling if you’re not paying close attention—they can blow away from the cowling in-flight and permit large amounts of air to escape without doing any cooling.

I recall some years ago inspecting a Cessna TR182 whose pilots had complained of high CHTs. Upon removing the top engine cowling, I immediately spotted the problem: One of the ignition leads was misrouted and became trapped between the baffle seal and the cowling, preventing the baffle seal from sealing against the cowling. The ignition lead had become severely chafed where it rubbed against the cowling, and an A&P had wrapped the chafed area with electrical tape, but failed to reroute the tape-wrapped lead to keep it away from the baffle seal. Clearly that A&P didn’t understand the importance of an air-tight seal between the baffle seals and the cowling. Repositioning the ignition lead solved both the cooling problem and the chafing problem.

Another common problem is that seals may develop wrinkles or creases when the cowling is installed, preventing them from sealing airtight against the cowling and allowing air to escape. It’s important to look carefully for such problems each time the cowling is removed and replaced, and especially important when new seals have been installed (as was the case with the T210).

Intercylinder Baffles

Inter-cylinder baffles are oddly-shaped pieces of sheet metal that mount beneath and between the cylinders, and force the down-flowing cooling air to wrap around and cool the bottom of the cylinders. (This photo was taken looking up from the bottom of the engine, with the exhaust and induction systems removed to make the baffle easier to see.)

Yet another trouble-prone part of the cooling system is the inter-cylinder baffles. These are small, oddly-shaped pieces of sheet metal mounted below and between the cylinders. Their purpose is to force the down-flowing cooling air to wrap around and cool the bottom of the cylinders, rather than just cooling the top and sides. These baffles are difficult to see unless you know exactly where to look for them, but they are absolutely critical for proper cooling. It’s not at all uncommon for them either to be left out during engine installation or to fall out during engine operation. Either way, the result is major cooling problems.

Awhile back, I noticed that the #3 cylinder of the right engine on my Cessna 310 was running noticeably hotter than its neighbors. I removed the top cowling from the right engine nacelle and carefully inspected all the aluminum baffles and rubber baffle seals, but couldn’t find anything awry. Frustrated, I removed the lower cowlings so that I could inspect the underside of the engine. Sure enough, I discovered that the intercylinder baffle between cylinders #1 and #3 had vibrated loose and shifted about 1/4 inch out of position, creating a significant air leak near the #3 cylinder. Repositioning the baffle properly and tightening its attach bolt to hold it securely in place against the cylinders and crankcase solved the problem.

Why the T210 engine ran hot

Wrinkle

Close-up of a fairly significant cooling air leak due to a wrinkle in a flexible baffle seal. This problem was apparent only with the top cowl installed, and could be seen by inspecting through the front intake openings using a flashlight. It’s an excellent idea to look for such baffle seal problems during preflight inspection.

With this as background, I emailed the T210 owner to discourage him from cutting holes in his baffles, and suggested instead that he examine his baffles and seals for existing holes and gaps that could be plugged up to improve cooling. A couple of days later, the owner emailed me back a series of digital photos showing a half-dozen air leaks that he found in his newly installed baffles.

One of those photos revealed a fairly significant cooling air leak due to a wrinkle in a flexible baffle seal. This problem was apparent only with the top cowl installed, and could be seen by inspecting through the front intake openings using a flashlight. Savvy pilots who understand the importance of baffles and seals look for this sort of thing during pre-flight inspection. (Since mechanics do most of their inspecting with the cowlings removed, problems like this sometimes escape their detection.)

I studied the photos and continued my email dialog with the Cessna owner. Between the two of us, we managed to identify a dozen leaks in the T210’s new baffle system. Some were small, others more serious. Combined, they accounted for a significant loss of cooling efficiency. With a few well-placed dabs of high-temp RTV sealant and a little trimming of the flexible seal strips, the owner plugged the leaks in short order, and his engine began running noticeably cooler.

Dealing with odd behavior

Having worked in the airlines for more than 20 years, I’ve seen a few things that have made me scratch my head—be it management decisions about company strategy, policies that are ill-advised, or passengers who act out in ways that are not only unusual, but unacceptable. Unfortunately, I’ve also witnessed a few employees conduct themselves in ways that are both professionally and socially unacceptable.

Most companies of any size will eventually deal with an employee who acts bizarrely or out of character. Most of the time, it doesn’t get any play on the local news, let alone CNN. However, the airlines are different, and when somebody does something that garners attention, it often goes viral within minutes. Too often, by the time the company hears about it, the incident has been disseminated to millions.

So, what to do? What not to do? Within an airline, the only two work groups that are required to pass an FAA medical are the dispatchers and the pilots. While the company can (and will) have certain expectations about your fitness when you show up to work, only pilots and dispatchers are required to meet a minimum established by the FAA, and are therefore expected to self-monitor their mental and physical well-being. Being sick does not mean you have to be down with the flu or a broken leg. It simply means that for any number of reasons you may not be up to the task. You may be overwhelmed by a problem at home: divorce, new baby, even a sick dog. If in your own judgment you can’t call yourself fit for duty, you are obligated to call in sick. It is, in fact, a federal aviation regulation.

But what happens when somebody chooses to come to work anyway, even though they shouldn’t? Or what if they don’t even realize that they shouldn’t come to work, or if they act…strangely? FAR 117 helps put the onus on the captain to vouch for the fitness of the first officer, but the rest of Part 91 helps make it clear that the FO does the same if he or she believes that the captain or one of the flight attendants is sick. As an FO, I once had to tell a captain that he was in no shape to fly and needed to call in sick. He thanked me then and later, and told me that I had done the right thing.

In recent years, there have been several instances of pilots acting in strange ways. On the ground, the first thing an FO should do is try and talk to the other pilot, especially if they’re working the same flight. Often, a simple conversation will provide valuable insight into the other person’s mood and state of mind. If the individual starts to put up red flags, try to ask another nearby person to speak to them. But if it’s clear that something is wrong, such as incoherent speech, random thoughts that don’t correlate to the conversation, the odor of alcohol or drugs, or apparent physical instability, then more drastic action needs to be taken. Every airline has a different specific plan of action, but the generalities are pretty common.

In such a case, the first call needs to be a manager on duty, such as a chief pilot or the head honcho for the day in scheduling. Even calling dispatch is sufficient. All you need to do is reach someone who can delay a flight long enough for you to allay your concerns to those up the chain of command. Phone calls to scheduling are almost always recorded, so calling via the scheduling department may not be a bad way to get started.—Chip Wright

Reunited

When I asked Tom Johnson, the former owner of our Sweepstakes 172, if he’d like to fly the airplane, he had a question of his own.

Tom Johnson (right) takes a photo of his son, Jeffrey, in front of their former Skyhawk.

“Will I be able to recognize any old parts?”

There wasn’t much for Tom to recognize of the former N739HW. But he had a great time flying N172WN.

Josh Cochran captures Tom Johnson getting acclimated to his former Skyhawk.

Tom brought his son, Jeffrey Johnson, along to check out their airplane. Jeffrey had a photo of himself as a 10-year-old standing in front of 739HW at EAA AirVenture.

Young Jeffrey Johnson with N739HW at EAA AirVenture.

That was one of N379HW’s last trips to Oshkosh. With a growing family, Tom acquired a Cessna 182 and says he flew it to AirVenture in 2004.

With Dave Hirschman in the right seat, Tom put the 172 through its paces. He was especially interested to see how the Micro Aerodynamics vortex generators would affect performance, and was pleased at the 172’s slow-flight and stall performance.

“It truly is an example of keeping older airframes flying by incorporating newer technologies to improve performance, safety, communications, and pilot situational awareness,” Johnson told me later.

We’re happy you like how it turned out, Tom. Thanks again for your wonderful donation.

Learn more about how you could win a Cessna 172 in the AOPA 172 Sweepstakes.

Overcoming Spanish Airports

It took some introspection to understand my reticence to land at another airport in Spain, until I realized that I was still a bit unnerved by a forced landing in the USA not too long before the intercontinental move, and then flying in Germany’s oppressive environment after that. It was one trauma after another, and flying across Europe as part of the intercontinental move actually made it worse, as opposed to curing the problem. For months, I stayed in a radius of La Cerdanya that could be flown without refueling, progressively introducing more adventure, including the French coast and the highest point in the Pyrenees, yet I couldn’t shake the utter lack of desire to land anywhere else.

I finally realized that, if my spring and summer European flying ventures are going to happen, I am going to have to get over myself and fly more than 75 NM from home. In a moment of indignant fury, akin to a Scottish Highland war cry (albeit with an iPad, behind a desk), I decided enough was enough and I was going to figure it out. Thus, I set out to methodically call airports one by one until I found a suitable candidate.

That started an interesting adventure, as I began to realize the magnitude of reasons why I don’t land anywhere else. Perhaps it has less to do with my own nervousness and more to do with an utterly inconvenient, disjointed, and aggravating network of airports. Should I start with the two fields up the valley in France? Nope. Licence du site francais required, at the cost of €500 each and an afternoon of training. Ok, maybe I’ll go to La Seu. Well, it’s 20 miles away, and a flight plan is required, which is silly. Other airports within reasonable range had no avgas, only mogas, for which nobody seemed to know or care if it was ethanol free. As my STC (and the desire to not crash) requires no ethanol, I crossed those airports off my list. Others had silly landing fees (€80+), or were hiding under the record-breaking inversion that fogged in the Catalonian Central Depression for months on end. France? I was not in the mood to go to France, as I live in Spain, though my analysis does show that France has a far more robust airport network, albeit coupled with an epileptically disorganized airspace system. Even more so, flying in any of the following directions is an entirely different climate zone with at times completely different weather on the same day: SE & S (Spanish Mediterranean), SW (Catalonian Central Depression), W (Pyrenees), N (French Midi-Pyrenees), NE (South of France).

Identifier Airport Distance (nm) Dealing with the French Flight Plan Site License No Fuel Prior Notice for Fuel Absurd Landing Fee Overhead Restricted Airspace Control Tower Winter Inversion No S or N Wind
LFYS La Llagonne, France  8.73 X X X
LFNG Saint Leocadie, France  16.16 X X X
LESU La Seu d’Urgell, Spain  19.58 X
LEMS Manresa, Spain  35.70 X X
LECF Calaf, Spain  39.22 X X
LFDJ Pamiers – Les Pujols, France  44.43 X X
LEIG Igualada, Spain  47.28 X
LEGE Girona, Spain  48.92 X X X
LFMP Perpignan, France  50.52 X X X X
LFCG Saint Girons, France  51.19 X X
LELL Sabadell, Spain  51.63 X X
LEAP Ampuriabrava, Spain  56.21 X
LFCB Bagneres de Luchon, France  61.55 X X X
LENA Benabarre, Spain  64.46 X X
LEDA Lleida, Spain  70.33 X X X
LEHC Huesca, Spain  98.53 X X X
LECI Santa Cilia, Spain  115.39 X

Finally, I settled on one option: Ampuriabrava on the Mediterranean coast. While fuel was $12.16 per gallon and the landing fee was €25, I decided to swallow any sense of fiscal rationale and hop in to at least get one flight over with. The first obstacle was fighting with my flight planning software, which uses the ICAO format and has strict validation rules. I have not yet found an equivalent to phone-based Flight Service. With that out of the way, I needed to get to the airport, find someone to refuel, preflight, take off, and clear the 7,000’ ridge to contact Barcelona Approach to activate the flight plan, all before the allotted time when the flight plan evaporates. The entire time climbing up to the Cadí-Moixeró ridge, I was conversing with myself how silly the whole process was, as the last time I talked to Barcelona Approach, it took eight minutes to respond to my request (yes, eight!), and by then, they handed me off to another frequency, which lost reception “down” at 8,500 feet due to terrain, requiring me to abandon controlled airspace and forget my intentions. Fortunately, the flight plan was activated quickly, and I settled into a cruise configuration over the foothills of the Pre-Pyrenees.

Geologic terminus of Pyrenees meeting the Mediterranean.

I asked Barcelona Approach if I could activate and go VFR, and they did not seem to understand what I was asking. I was handed an altitude and heading clearance and that was that. Since then, I have come to understand that if a flight plan is involved, it is normal to expect flight following and traffic advisories. Each time I have tried to get around it, including in France, controllers don’t seem to understand and continue to offer radar service. In conversing with Spaniards on the matter, it seems there are two camps: flight plans are required for all VFR flights or “shut the transponder off.” The reality, as far as I have researched, is that flight plans are required for flying in controlled airspace, though optional for uncontrolled; however, activating in the air triggers an assumption that flight following is desired.

After handoff to Girona Tower (even though I was far from their Class D airspace), I was told, if not lectured, three times that I must contact Ampuriabrava Information if I lose Girona Tower, as there are “actually” parachute operations today, which I agreed to do each time. My protocol was to call Information anyway, as it is required and noted on the map, and in a moment of American-centric selfishness, I thought pilots obeyed controlled airspace. Perhaps they do not in Spain?

Flying along the coast.

After a flight along the coast and around the cape where the Pyrenees geologically meet the Mediterranean, I made an uneventful landing, with an Information controller that seemed like he couldn’t be bothered to say much, at least in the pattern. When on the ground, he became insistent that I taxi to the Jet A-1 area, despite 100LL signs elsewhere. After power down, the fuel attendant, who doubles as an Information controller, told me I had to push the plane over to the 100LL area as I was in the wrong spot.

After paying an emasculating fee to refuel and land, I asked if a flight plan is really required. “Oh, yes it is.” “Do you file one for every single flight, including local ones?” “Oh no, for local flights, we don’t need one.” Nobody has really explained that one to me, and other pilots have told me that Information Service airports truly do not legally require a flight plan, though they think highly of themselves and reprimand pilots that fail to file. Between this and other antics of the day, I came to realize that Spanish aviation is as confused and disorganized as every other aspect of daily life here, and nobody cares except foreigners.

A bit hazy.

Haze near the coast, with Pic d’Canigou, France on the horizon on the left.

Haze on this particular day was awful in areas, which turned out was a precursor to an apocalyptic Saharan dust storm that blew in the next day (all the way to the Pyrenees), so I opted to climb above the layer and straight to Pic d’Canigou, a tall snow-covered prominence over the border in France, and then head back via the mountain ridge. Girona Tower didn’t believe my original intentions and asked a few times as I flew to the border, and then gladly deposited me with Montpellier Approach in France, who couldn’t understand why I was not flying in a straight line to my destination. I was asked multiple times when I was going to fly to the Spanish border, and after explaining twice that I was going to take photos of Pic d’Canigou, I was told to “advise when you’re done with your little tour and heading to the Spanish border.” Montpellier Approach was more than happy to hand me back to Barcelona Approach well before the border who, in turn, could not understand why I was asking to close the flight plan with La Cerdanya in sight, though agreed to do so after asking twice, even though he sounded like my chances of crashing and dying in the final 6 minutes of flight without an active flight plan were akin to jumping off a bridge. Remember that all of this is happening in VFR uncontrolled airspace.

My “little tour” around Pic d’Canigou, France (9,137′). It is amazing to go from palm trees to this in 40 minutes.

After a successful flight, I decided three days later to conquer Santa Cilia and the length of the Pyrenees. I called the airport asking three questions: do you have avgas, how late are you open, and do I need a flight plan? The answer was satisfactory on all fronts, including that a flight plan was not needed (even though there was Information Service). Five hours and thousands of photographs later, I had one of the most amazing and memorable flights in my life, and I did it American-style: I hopped in the plane, announced upon arrival, refueled without a reservation, and returned how I wanted and when I wanted, and it felt great.

Pre-Pyrenees

Western Pyrenees – I have about 95% less concern flying here than in controlled airspace.

Saharan dust on Pyrenees snowpack at 10,000′.

On a separate note, I have finally completed another book from the good old days of flying in Wyoming, wild and free of bureaucratic nonsense. Flying Jackson Hole is a compendium of aerial imagery taken from the Cub – including Grand Teton, Jackson, and wilderness areas and mountain ranges around town, taken without worrying about flight plans, national borders, radar service coverage, site licenses, $12 avgas, or any other silliness. (Available on Amazon.com or at the author’s site)

Augmented weather reports to be reduced in Alaska

As pilots, we rely on weather reports to decide whether to fly—or not.  Yet not all weather reports are equal.  While most aviation surface observations are generated by a machine, in some cases humans still confirm or correct the observations–making them more trustworthy than totally automated reports.  Recently proposed changes by the National Weather Service (NWS) to reduce their role in collecting weather data will lessen the quality of these reports at some of our weather stations in Alaska—with fewer stations being “augmented” by a human to provide a more complete and representative weather report.   This is a concern both for the reports that pilots use to make those critical go-no go decisions, and possibly for the quality of the forecasts that we rely on to anticipate changing conditions while inflight.

What is augmented weather?
Today most aviation weather reports (METARS) are generated by a machine, either an Automated Weather Observing System (AWOS) or Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS) depending on who owns it.  These machines operate 24 hours a day, and can generate “specials” when weather conditions are changing, but have limitations that have been recognized since they first became operational.  For example, even though the beam of light that measures cloud height is more precise than a human just looking out the window, the extent of a cloud layer isn’t known until enough of it has drifted across the sensor to allow a computer to determine if the sky condition is FEW, SCATTERED, BROKEN or OVERCAST.  It also doesn’t alert the pilot to the fog layer that has been approaching the station for several hours, and is about to make an airport go IFR.  Visibility is another case where very local conditions can trick the system.  The estimate of visibility is computed from the number of particles that break a one meter beam of light.  It can be fooled by local disturbances such as a patch of fog, or exhaust from a vehicle. And it can’t report the reduction in visibility as a weather system approaches until it envelopes the station.  For a pilot on a cross country flight—this may be too late!

If there were enough weather reporting stations distributed over the landscape, they would tend to fill in the gaps, and provide a good spatial picture of the weather. But with the large size of Alaska, and general lack of infrastructure, we are woefully short of reporting stations.  Even in the “lower 48” the limitations of automated stations are recognized, and the US has adopted a system of service levels so that the larger, more heavily used airports have human observers who double check the automated stations. In these locations, trained weather observers augment the reports to overcome system limitations, and can back them up when components of the system fail. Here again, Alaska loses out, as our traffic counts often don’t qualify for augmentation services.  Fortunately, the FAA recognized this when they consolidated Flight Service Stations in the 1990s.  In response to push-back from the aviation community, they kept either a part-time Flight Service Station, a contract weather observer, or in some cases NWS staff at locations formerly served by a Flight Service Station to perform the augmentation task.  Today, we are being advised that the NWS is shifting the responsibility for this function to the FAA, and withdrawing this service at eleven locations across the state, which is the current source of concern.

Which stations are augmented?
There are several entities that can augment weather reports. Flight Service Station staff are trained to make weather observations, and may augment them.  Tower controllers and NWS weather staff in some locations also perform augmentation, as well as contracted weather observers.  Some stations are augmented 24 hours a day, while others only during hours when an FAA facility is open—either daily or seasonally.  To see a list of stations and times, see the Alaska Augmentation Sites.pdf  file.  For a more visual form, see the map below.

This image shows METAR locations at the end of 2016 across Alaska in green. Sites with a yellow circle are augmented part-time, orange circles show sites with 24-hour augmentation.

 

What is the change?
Recently the NWS came out with a public notice indicating that the responsibility for aviation weather augmentation and back-up is transitioning to the FAA. The NWS plans to discontinue augmentation at eleven stations across the state.  In some cases, this would merely reduce the hours the observation is augmented.  In four locations augmentation would be eliminated entirely—Yakutat, Saint Paul, Kodiak and Annette Island.  McGrath would have no augmentation from October through April.  Reductions in augmentation would be seen in an additional six locations, including Nome, Kotzebue, King Salmon, Cold Bay, Bethel, and Barrow.  The FAA has already suspended the contract weather observer at Gulkana, which is another former Flight Service Station location, and regional hub in the Copper River Basin. AOPA has asked to have the Gulkana observer re-instated, given its importance as a regional cross-roads in the Copper River Valley.

Who cares about augmentation?
I hope all pilots consider whether the METAR they are evaluating is augmented or not.  Especially when conditions are changing, one should be wary of unattended, automated sites.  If the METAR is augmented, you can place greater reliance on its being accurate, and to capture hints of change, which are often recorded in the REMARKS section.  While IFR-capable operators can generally handle more weather than VFR pilots, even they are subject to minimums and need decent alternates in their hip-pockets.  As primarily a VFR pilot, I am always looking closely at the reports available, to see that I will continue to have a suitable place to deviate, if needed. Remember, the term AUTO in a raw METAR means that the station is NOT being augmented!

Trends and the future of aviation weather reports
Zooming out to the bigger picture, this proposed change is yet another reduction in weather information available to pilots.  In the past few years, we have seen A-Paid observers eliminated, leaving holes in the weather picture, vital for cross country flights to remote parts of Alaska.  We continue to have weather-related accidents, and now the quality and quantity of reports from some of the automated weather stations are  eroding. AOPA has written a letter to the NWS and FAA challenging this recent proposed change, and asking that, at a minimum, a safety risk analysis be conducted, with aviation community input, prior to reducing these services. We also want to see a comprehensive review of the overall weather reporting system needed to support aviation in Alaska.

Stay tuned for further developments!

I don’t care how you get there, just get there if you can.

AOPA Regional Fly-Ins offer Friday intensive education series.

In regard to the newly announced two-day AOPA Regional fly-ins I am going to paraphrase Oleta Adams song Get Here, I don’t care how you get there, just get there if you can. Ongoing education is vital to the pilot population. Statistics are clear that when we attend continuing education our ability to safely operate airplanes increases. According to national safety seminar presenter Mark Grady, “Several years back it was determined that pilots who participated in the FAA’s Wings Program regularly did not have as many accidents, incidents and even violations as other GA pilots. It simply makes common sense that pilots who take time to do more than the minimum of a flight review are going to be safer. After all, we react the way we are trained in an emergency, so the more up-to-date training we have, the better we handle things that may go wrong.” When AOPA adopted a regional fly-in format versus a multiple day format, I missed the comprehensive educational seminars offered. And though the regional fly-in format is wildly successful, the opportunity for intensive classes was not available. Well, all that changes with the new Friday,  hands-on workshops being offered at all four AOPA regional fly-ins across the country.

Each fly-in offers four subjects to choose from for a Friday seven-hour intensive clinic with excellent presenters. Pre-registration is required. Tuition fees apply: $105 for members, $155 for non-members, and $75 for spouses. I am thrilled to have developed Pilot Plus One which will be offered at all four regional fly-ins. Check out the offerings below:

Owner-Guided Maintenance: Managing Your Aircraft Maintenance
Interested in taking on a larger role in the maintenance of your aircraft?   Join aviation adventurer, JetBlue pilot, and around-the-world adventurer, Adrian Eichhorn and A&P/IAs Mike Busch and Paul New help you determine what you, as the aircraft owner, can do to keep your plane in top condition. Get hands-on with changing the oil in an actual aircraft engine, cleaning and gapping spark plugs, and examining the insides of an aircraft engine to determine its health with the help of these three FAA Aviation Technicians of the Year.

 

IFR Refresher: Getting Back to Instrument Proficiency
Hear from Jim Simon, chief flight instructor and director of Rainier Flight Service. Simon’s motto is “Safety first,” and he’ll be putting his more than 5,000 hours of flight instructing experience to work so you can get back into the cockpit as pilot in command under instrument flight rules.

 

Overcoming Mountains & Water: Flying in the Extremes
Join renowned mountain flying specialist Lori MacNichol and AOPA Pilot magazine editor-at-large Thomas A. Horne to learn the skills necessary to fly safely in mountainous terrain, or over water, and learn what items these experts suggest you should have on-hand to survive after a forced landing in mountainous terrain, or after a ditching at sea.  You’ll gather around a general aviation airplane, pull a life raft out of storage, deploy it, inflate it, and don your personal flotation device in a real time run-through of a ditching emergency.

 

Understanding Aviation Weather

For September 8th-9th Norman, OK you will have a unique chance to tour the National Weather Center for a seminar called Understanding Aviation Weather.

 

Pilot Plus One©

Pilot Plus One is a comprehensive daylong educational seminar designed to educate, inspire, and encourage adventure pilots and non-pilot companions. The idea is simple, when we recognize the unlimited possibilities for using the airplane for recreation, vacation, business and charitable flights, we will all start flying more now. Pilot Plus One is a lively seminar with ample opportunities for audience participation. At the close of the day, we will have fabulous door prizes from Lightspeed Aviation and Flying Eyes Optics. Our schedule includes leading experts in the aviation.

More Than Just the $100 Hamburger: Fun destinations to Fly by George Kounis, Publisher/Editor in Chief, Pilot Getaways Magazine.

Overcoming Fear Unleashing Potential: Addresses common fears of pilots and right-seat flyers by Robert DeLaurentis, Pilot, author, and philanthropist

Picture Perfect: Tips and techniques to get the best in-flight and at destination photos by professional aviation photographer, Jim Koepnick

Right Seat Ready! This companion safety seminar by Jolie Lucas and Jan Maxwell provides familiarization for non-pilots including airframe, instruments, radios and avionics, aircraft control, emergency communications, navigation, heads-up flight display, and landings. It is a fun, fast-paced, hands on class sure to inspire confidence to be ready on the right.

 

So make a plan to get to Camarillo, CA., Norman, OK., Groton, CT., or Tampa, FL in 2017. I will look forward to meeting many of you.  Your attendance and participation will make you a more informed pilot.  Bring your Plus One and let us inspire you to have more fun adventures in the airplane.  From educational opportunities to exhibits, displays and camaraderie, these events should not be missed.   For registration please go to:  AOPA 2017

Alaska aviation motor fuel tax increase under discussion

Alaska’s fiscal crisis is again in the news. As oil revenues decrease, lawmakers struggle to make ends meet for almost 90% of the state’s operating costs. In January, the Alaska Aviation Advisory Board (AAB) passed a resolution supporting the Governor’s bill to increase motor fuel taxes to help cover the costs of maintaining the 240 airports operated by the state. This year’s bills call for a two-stage increase, which would result in rates of 14.1 cents per gallon for avgas, and 9.6 cents for jet fuel.  While larger than last year’s proposal, which was not adopted, these rates are still in the middle of the pack of what pilots in other states pay for fuel taxes.  If adopted, the total income from motor fuel tax and other revenue streams that support airports will cover about half the cost of operating the rural airport system.

Will our tax money go to aviation?
When the state collects motor fuel taxes, they are deposited into the state’s General Fund, which the legislators decide how to spend.  There has been a concern that our fuel taxes would go to programs other than aviation.  Last year, however, a separate account was established within the General Fund which treats aviation fuel tax money as a restricted fund, to be spent on airport maintenance and development.  Provisions in this year’s bill set up a similar situation for the other modes of transportation.

Is this the best way to support the aviation system?
Over the past year and a half the Aviation Advisory Board worked with DOT to evaluate options for supporting the rural airport system (excluding Anchorage and Fairbanks International Airports that are operated as an enterprise fund, which pays its own way). Landing Fees and an aircraft registration program were both explored. After looking at the details of these other options, both would cost more to implement, and make life more complicated for aircraft owners.  Consequently, the AAB again this year adopted a resolution to support the motor fuel tax bill.  Based on the AAB’s recommendation, AOPA, the Alaska Airmens Association and some other aviation groups have supported the Governor’s proposed legislation.

What is the impact?
If the proposed increase in motor fuel tax is implemented, what will it cost?  Adam White, Government Affairs Manager for the Alaska Airmens Association computed the potential costs for several different GA aircraft types, using 50 and 100 hours of operation per year. If you own aircraft in these categories, the increase in cost would range between $40 and $140 per year.

Type A/C Hours flown GPH Current Tax Proposed 2018 Tax Difference
$0.047 $0.141
C180/185 50 15 $35.25 $105.75 $70.50
C180/185 100 15 $70.50 $211.50 $141.00
C172 50 12 $28.20 $84.60 $56.40
C172 100 12 $56.40 $169.20 $112.80
PA18 50 9 $21.15 $63.45 $42.30
PA18 100 9 $42.30 $126.90 $84.60

 

Since 2015, DOT has reduced its operating budget by 62 million dollars which is a 22% reduction.  So far the impacts have been limited. Several highway stations have been shut down, and at least one airport will not get winter maintenance this year.  Several airports have been handed off from DOT to other entities.  DOT is also making changes that should allow them to better account for the levels of service they provide—measured in how long it takes to restore service after a storm, or how many hours a Part 139 airport is staffed to support operations.  It will take some time to find the right balance between services and revenues to keep this component of Alaska’s transportation operating. We must all watch closely as the Governor and Legislature work through these challenging times.

Changing job applications

I’ve covered the topic of filling out job applications in several posts, but a recent incident has me wanting to discuss the topic again.

Pilots trying to get a job with an airline—especially, but not limited to—a major carrier will use whatever advantages they can. Know the CEO? Check. Have letters of recommendation from several vice presidents? Check. Are you a female or a minority? Check….carefully.

Nobody wants to discuss the possibility that preferences may be given to women and minorities, but any large corporation needs to be in compliance with a number of federal laws when it comes to hiring. While “quota” is not a word often heard, you’d be naïve to think that certain groups aren’t actively pursued in order to avoid getting sued for discrimination.

And that brings me to how to handle this on your application. With computerized applications the rule nowadays, companies can track the changes on applications. I recently had a discussion with a pilot who was questioned in an interview about changing his ethnicity on the application after the invitation for the interview had been extended. He had selected a minority background initially, and changed it later to White/Other. To the airline, it looked like he had made the initial selection to try to expedite getting called for an interview, then tried to be honest after the fact. It didn’t look good, and he was denied the job because it looked like he was trying to game the system.

It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: When you’re filling out the application, be honest on everything, and when it comes to the very basics of who you are, make sure you get it right the first time. If you can legitimately claim to be a certain something, then by all means, say so. But if you think you’re going to get away with something, think twice. Just because you may get through the interview while hiding a checkride failure or a deceptive background, you’re not off the hook. Airlines have terminated pilots even after their probationary year is up if they lied to get the job, and there’s nothing to stop them from doing so in the future.

If you discover that you’ve made an honest mistake, take the initiative and address it first yourself. You can either deal with the HR folks on the phone (the smart move), or you can wait until the interview and bring it up first on your own before they get a chance to start questioning you. The last thing you want to do is to put yourself in a situation where you are forced to defend your integrity.—Chip Wright

Painted or polished?

Some of you, noticing the new look of our Sweepstakes 172, want to know: Is the airplane sporting polished metal?

It looks like polished metal in Chris Rose’s photos. But what you see here is paint. Specifically, it’s Sherwin Williams Ice Silver Acryglo.

The base coat is a subtle metallic. In the hangar, it looks…well, almost battleship gray. (“Looks like a stealth airplane!” a member told me a few weeks ago.) In the sunlight, however, it’s a different story.

N172WN got the base coat at Cimarron Aircraft Corp. in El Reno, Oklahoma. She’ll wear the special decals designed by Scheme Designers through April. Then it’s off to KD Aviation for a final paint scheme. Ken Reese of KD Aviation has shepherded several of our sweepstakes airplanes through final paint, notably the Millenium Mooney and the Win-a-Twin-Comanche, so I’m confident he’ll bring that same level of excellence to our Sweepstakes 172.

Learn more about how you could win a Cessna 172 in the AOPA 172 Sweepstakes.

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