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Tag: aviation safety (page 1 of 4)

Exiting the hold by letting yourself be a flexible thinker

In last month’s installment of Exiting the Hold: Reaching your Aviation Goals we talked about understanding what type of learner you are to maximize your educational experience. This month we will focus on the importance of being a flexible thinker.

Neural pathways are like goat trails in the brain. We establish well-worn patterns of thinking and develop neural pathways, which become default ways of thought behavior. Thought, experience and behavior about events form schemas, a cognitive framework, that helps us to interpret and understand our world, and can be predictive in nature.

Humans naturally prefer to filter new information through an old “thought box” [schema]. Take a look at this video and see the concept in action: 

The habit of assimilation means that we often times take new information and try to make sense of it through trying to relate it to old learning or ways of thinking. However many times information or experience won’t fit in an existing schema. In those times we have to accommodate the information into a new way of thinking. An example would be a young child that knows what a dog is [four-legged animal], but when sees a cow incorrectly identifies it as a dog. This child will have to accommodate the information of a large four-legged animal into another thought box to know it is a cow.

As an adult, it is sometimes difficult to allow yourself to be a learner, yet that is what we need to do to reach our goals. Brain research in decades past pointed to brain development being completed in stages of childhood and remaining relatively fixed until death. However in the late 90s research began to show evidence of neural plasticity, the idea that your brain isn’t completely hard-wired. Through experience and training, we can re-wire or alter the brain’s functioning, forcing a cortical and neuronal re-wiring. Breaking out of a cycle of inaction or inactivity requires action. If we default to old ways of thinking we will do ourselves a disservice.

Flexible thinking is key to getting out of a holding pattern. Practice makes practice, and through practice you will gain mastery.   Having one achievement opens up the belief that you can do more. Learn from the best, and let yourself make mistakes, give yourself grace, and marvel how education can change your brain.

Right Seat Ready! at AOPA Camarillo, CA. Photo credit: David Tulis

I am getting ready to head to Longview Texas to teach Right Seat Ready! a companion safety seminar I co-founded with my teaching partner Jan Maxwell.  This national Mooney conference called MooneyMAX takes place October 10-14. The one-day Right Seat Ready! seminar is open to all non-pilot companions in single engine airplanes.

Jan and I toured with AOPA last year offering an abbreviated version of Right Seat Ready!.  It never fails to amaze me how much anxiety our students have at the beginning of the day.  You see, at the beginning of the day they are trying to fit all the new information into the old thought box that is labeled, “I am not a pilot.”  However, by the end of the day the anxiety is gone, replaced by excitement of new learning, smiles, practice and encouragement. Before long the old thought box is replaced with one labeled “I am Right Seat Ready!”

Right Seat Ready! at AOPA Camarillo, CA. Photo credit: David Tulis

 

Jolie Lucas is a Mooney owner, licensed psychotherapist, and instrument rated pilot. She is the Founder of two grass-roots general aviation service groups: Mooney Ambassadors and the Friends of Oceano Airport. Presently Jolie is the Vice President of the California Pilots Association. She is the 2010 AOPA Joseph Crotti Award recipient for GA Advocacy. She is the Director and Executive Producer of the documentary: Boots on the Ground: the Men & Women who made Mooney©. She co-created Mooney Girls Mooney Girls and Right Seat Ready!© She is the creator of Pilot Plus One© She is an aviation educator and writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: Mooney4Me

HAARP Project under new management: Watch for the TFR

[Updated: April 2, 2018]

The High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) is a research program that has been used to study the ionosphere since 1990. The facility, north east of the Gulkana Airport, is home to radio transmitters and an array of antennas that can transmit 3.6 megawatts of energy into the atmosphere, in support of research projects.  It doesn’t operate very often, a few times per year at present, but when it does, pilots don’t want to be in the path of this beam of radio energy.  Consequently, we should be on the lookout for a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) that will be activated during campaigns, to avoid flying over the facility.  The next campaign is from September 21-25, but there will be others to follow.  Make sure to check NOTAMs, in case this TFR is active when you are flying in the Copper River Basin, or transiting the area to or from the Alaska Highway route to Canada.

Social media notice of the September research campaign at the HAARP facility near Gakona. Watch for a TFR when the facility is in operations.

What is HAARP?
Located about 16 nautical miles northeast of the Gulkana Airport (GKN), the facility houses a 33-acre array of antennas, and when operating, can send pulses of energy into the upper reaches of the atmosphere to stimulate this zone, providing a means to study what happens there. Research has potential implications for understanding properties ranging from the aurora to long-range communications. Until recently, the Air Force operated the facility, in support of Department of Defense research interests, primarily dealing with communication and navigation interests.  In 2015, the facility was transferred to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Geophysical Institute to operate.  For more information on the facility, see the frequently asked questions document at http://gi.alaska.edu/haarp/faq.

Why a TFR?
AOPA has followed the operation of the HAARP facility for many years, primarily out of concerns with possible disturbance to aircraft navigation and/or communications systems. While managed by the Air Force, operations were conducted as a Controlled Firing Area (CFA), meaning that the Air Force had to shut down their transmitter if an aircraft came within a prescribed distance.  They used a radar system to detect aircraft and shut down the transmitter if an aircraft got too close.  When the Geophysical Institute took over operations, FAA re-examined those procedures and decided that the CFA was not adequate, in part due to the high-altitude nature of the impacts. The TFR language is expected to define an area from the surface to FL250.

The HAARP Facility north east of the Gulkana Airport, will have a TFR protecting the airspace around the facility when in operations, similar to this graphic. Check NOTAMs for details and active times.  Map courtesy of SkyVector.com

The HAARP Project has re-established a phone number that pilots may call during times the facility is operating.  They have also temporarily re-established a VHF radio frequency, to allow pilots to contact the facility while airborne. These mechanisms should allow pilots operating in the area to have a direct line of communication to obtain more detailed information than the NOTAM is expected to contain, given the real-time nature of changes in the experimental world.  AOPA has also requested that the facility be charted on the Anchorage Sectional, to make it easier for pilots to become familiar with the location of the facility.  In addition to a NOTAM for a TFR, during operations pilots may call the HAARP site, near Gakona, at 907-822-5497, or on VHF radio frequency 122.25 MHz.  [Note: As of April, 2018 the VHF frequency for HAARP has changed to 123.3] Information will also be available on Facebook and Twitter at @uafhaarp.

Stay tuned for more information as the transition from Air Force to university operations proceed. And make sure to check NOTAMs to find out when the TFR is activated.

Upgraded weather web tools for Alaska pilots

Our ability to access weather data for pilots in Alaska continues to evolve.  Recently both the National Weather Service and the FAA have released new operational versions of their websites for Alaska weather.  They are both well worth a closer look.

Alaska Aviation Weather Unit’s New Look
For years the NWS Alaska Aviation Weather Unit (AAWU) has provided an excellent website with a combination of current and forecast weather products specifically for Alaska aviators.  It just got a new look, to increase security and migrate to a nationally supported server. While you will recognize most of the products, the home page has a different look, and increased functionality.

The main page on the new AAWU site has controls to toggle Airmets, TAFs and/or PIREPs.

The home page uses a new base map, and offers increased functionality without having to dig into the menu structure.  Not only is it a zoomable map base, but one can now toggle on (and off) Airmets, Terminal Area Forecasts and/or display PIREPs.  TAFs sites are color coded by weather category. You may also display and filter pilot reports, to look up to 24 hours into the past for trend information. New features to watch for include adding METARs to the user choices on the front page, and updated winds aloft graphics. Also explore the tiled quick links at the bottom of the homepage.

In this screen shot above, PIREPs for the past three hours are displayed. They also include a text list of the PIREPs for the selected time block at the bottom of the page, in case you want to browse them in that form.

The old site will continue to run in parallel with the new site until June 20, 2017, but start using the new site today at: weather.gov/aawu.  As with any site that is developing, you may need to let the National Weather Service know if you have problems, or questions.  Direct those to: [email protected].

New FAA Weather Camera site goes operational
By all accounts, the Aviation Weather Camera Program is the most popular thing the FAA has done in many years.  After months of development and testing, it too has a new look, web address and loads of new functionality.  Thanks to many of you who participated in the recent beta-testing activity, the FAA made significant upgrades and declared the new site operational as of May 1st.

More current and forecast weather information has been added to the site.

While the FAA will continue to operate the old site in parallel for a while, you should note the new address:  avcamsplus.faa.gov. The major changes have to do with the presentation of current and forecast weather in graphic form, on the map page.  If zoomed in far enough, airports that have reported weather and terminal area forecasts will give reveal conditions at a glance, before even selecting and reading the full text reports.

METARs, TAFs and PIREPs are visually presented, with an idea of the trend presented graphically.

Other new features include an increased selection of base maps to choose from, including Sectionals, IFR charts or a terrain enhanced display.  Note, however, that several the menu selection choices are not active. There is more development ahead, making it very important that you remember to take the Pilot Survey that is linked from the hope page. Also note that this version of the program is not optimized for tablets or smart phones. Those devices are to be incorporated in future releases.

Exercise them!
Both of the NWS and FAA tools are coming out just as the flying season ramps up. Please take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with them before taking off this summer. And keep your comments rolling in to drive improvements in the months ahead!

GPS Jamming in Alaska: Maybe not as bad as it looks

Along with the return of waterfowl to Alaska, there is another sign of spring: the start of the military training exercise season.  This year’s lead off exercise is Northern Edge, scheduled from May 1-12, including an extended plan for GPS jamming.  An overview of the jamming activities was presented in a briefing to the Alaska Civil Military Aviation Council (ACMAC) recently. These are becoming an increasingly important part of the exercise. Our military uses of GPS, as well as the development of jamming devices by foreign powers, make it an essential component of the “train like we fight” nature of these exercises.  Of course, at the same time civil aviation is becoming reliant on GPS for navigation, and as a key component of the ADS-B system, for surveillance by Air Traffic Control.

Civil Impacts of GPS Jamming
When the military is “testing” their jamming systems, what is the impact on civil aviation?  At the ACMAC meeting, we were informed that the equipment used during the Northern Edge exercise is ground based, operated at two location:  R-2205 east of Eielson Air Force Base, and at Chena Hot Springs.  The jamming will be highly directional in nature, focusing on targets to the north east of those locations.  But be prepared for a shock when you look at the NOTAMs issued regarding these activities.  Even though the plans for jamming are directional in nature, the FAA requires that the NOTAM cover the impact as if jamming was taking place in any direction. Consequently, we end up with projected impacts having a radius of several hundred miles at altitude.

Diagram of the predicted impact of jamming in all directions from the ground locations at R-2205 and Chena Hot Springs. Jamming is planned to take place only to the north east of those locations

Map of potential impacts from GPS testing from NOTAM JFAK 17-01. Please check current NOTAMs before you fly.

The NOTAM issued to warn civil aviation when these exercises are being conducted shows a huge “circle” of airspace that may be impacted, intended to represent an absolute worst case. The actual plans confine the highly directional jamming activities to the north east from the ground locations.  The figures above represents this omni-directional worst case.  At the briefing, FAA advised us that ATC plans to continue to use ADS-B, and to issue clearances for GPS routes and GPS approaches, after cautioning pilots about the activities scheduled during their flight.

Provisions to Cease Jamming
Since the jamming activities can interfere with aircraft navigation, provisions have been made to cease operations should an emergency arise.  ATC will have a direct line of communications to stop jamming and confirm the jammers are off within 60 seconds of receiving the request, in the event of a safety-of-flight issue.  Pilots finding themselves in trouble should contact ATC, in the event of an emergency.

In addition to JPARC airspaces, Northern Edge operations will take place in the Gulf of Alaska, using a corridor between FL220 and 260 to transition between areas

Northern Edge
This exercise is massive in scale.  Over 150 aircraft, launching from bases at Eielson, JBER and Anchorage International Airport are scheduled to participate.  The MOAs and Restricted Areas in the JPARC, along with an offshore airspace over the Gulf of Alaska will see action.  While the exercise runs Monday through Friday for the first two weeks of May, no flying is scheduled on the weekends.  There is a daily pattern to the exercises, with the most intensive flying activities taking place from 10 am to noon for the morning mission, with a second window from 5 to about 7:30 pm. Aircraft departing before and recovering after the mission will extend those times by up to an hour on either end of the day.  Please check NOTAMs carefully during these days, as plans sometimes change in response to weather and other factors.

Getting it right
This training is obviously important to maintain our military readiness. Yet it feels like we still need to find a better balance between communicating the potential impacts of the GPS jamming, without interfering with ongoing civil operations in the National Airspace System.  Please pay close attention during these exercises (there will be more to come later in the season) and tell ATC or Flight Service about any problems you encounter with GPS or ADS-B usage that might relate to this activity.  Please also drop AOPA a message at [email protected].

Alaska Backcountry Airstrip survey: Do you use them?

Backcountry airstrips serve an important role in Alaska’s aviation system.  Over the past couple years, a Backcountry Airstrips Working Group, led by the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT), has been exploring this topic, and just released a survey for pilots to weigh-in on their use of this often-unnoticed component of our aviation infrastructure.  If you use back-country airstrips, please take a few minutes to share your thoughts, and identify any concerns you may have on this topic.  Here is a link directly to the survey, which runs through May 10th. https://goo.gl/forms/6aPBJ7h3BbzS7oxq1

What is a backcountry airstrip?
While the international, regional and community airports are familiar to us, there is another network of “facilities” scattered around the state that is often overlooked.  These are airstrips that were built to provide access for some purpose, often a mining claim or mineral exploration project, which has since gone away—but the airstrip remains.  Depending on the other resources in the area, given Alaska’s vast size and lack of road system, these airstrips typically serve other needs, generally to access public lands. Uses might include establishing a camp, in support of a hunting trip or other recreational activity. Depending on the adjacent land ownership, it may provide access to remote cabin sites.  On a river, it could be the transfer point to drop off or pick up people from float trips.  When the weather turns bad, or in any other kind of emergency, having a place to land is a safety consideration.  Finally, backcountry airstrips can also serve as staging areas to support access for more distant off-field landing sites.

Backcountry versus Off Field landing areas
Defining what a backcountry airstrip is might seem like an easy task, but it has taken quite a bit of discussion.  The working group definition includes landing areas that are “improved” although they may have little or no maintenance routinely performed.  It is important to differentiate between backcountry airstrips, and true off-field landing areas—which means a gravel bar, hill top, or other terrain feature that one is able to land on.  From the air, there wouldn’t necessarily be noticeable features, such as trees cleared to create a safety area, or modification of the natural landscape to make it a landing area.  Fortunately, in Alaska we are allowed to perform off-field landings on most public lands, unless regulations have specifically been adopted to declare the area off-limits.  The working group is not addressing off-field landing areas, but does recognize that one of the potential uses of a backcountry airstrip is to serve as a staging area to reach off-field landing locations.

Kansas Creek, in the central Alaska Range, has provided access for hunting and other uses for about fifty years. In the context of this discussion, it would be considered a backcountry airstrip.

 

This off-field landing area, along the Ivishak River on the north side of the Brooks Range is an un-improved piece of tundra that just happens to be flat and firm enough to land on. It would not be defined as a backcountry airstrip in this discussion.

Case Study: Gold King Creek
While every airport has its own story, Gold King Creek (AK7) is an case worth examining.  Located 40 nautical miles south of Fairbanks, in the foothills of the Alaska Range, the 2,500 foot airstrip was originally built at the site of a microwave communications station. The facility connected the military radar station at Clear with the Cold War era “White Alice” communication system that linked Alaska to the lower 48.  Fuel for the generator that powered the relay site was flown in, from Delta I believe, to keep the facility operating around the clock.  When the relay site was no longer needed, it was shut down, and years later the tower removed, but the airstrip remains. Miners, hunters, seismologists, berry pickers and others continued to use the airstrip, which is on stable ground, and doesn’t require much in the way of maintenance.

The federal government eventually transferred the land to the State of Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), who later allocated recreational land parcels near the airstrip, some of which have inhabited cabins today.  The property containing the airstrip was transferred from DNR to DOT, more recently. Prior to that happening, we almost lost Gold King off the charts completely.

An aerial view of Gold King airstrip, with cabin sites off the edge of the runway.

Charting history of Gold King
When owned by the federal government, the airstrip was charted as a Private Use facility (see figure below).  After the military use ceased, for a while it disappeared from the charts completely.  With the transfer from federal government to State of Alaska ownership, it was again charted, initially shown as closed, and with no information about the length or elevation of the airstrip.  In the late 1990’s, a Military Operations Area (MOA) created that covered this area.  Because Gold King was a known entity, a MOA exclusion area was defined around it, up to 1,500 ft agl. The cut-out helps prevent an aircraft just lifting off the runway from coming nose to nose with a high-speed jet on a training exercise.  Today, the airstrip is charted with more complete information for pilots, including a CTAF frequency.  Charting is one of the issues that needs to be considered for other backcountry airstrips in the state.

This figure shows the charting history of Gold King, from its time as a communications support facility, to when it disappeared from the charts completely, and slowly back to having more complete information today, including a cut-out under a Military Operations Area.

 Gateway to Public Land
While most back-country airstrips are remote, it doesn’t necessarily mean some of them might not be on the road-system.  A notable example is the airstrip at Happy Valley, some 65 nautical miles south of the Deadhorse Airport (SCC) at Prudhoe Bay.  This 5,000 foot airstrip was built during construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970’s to support the construction camp located there, along the Sagavarnirktok River, and on the haul-road that today connects the oilfields on the north slope with the rest of Alaska. After the construction, the camp was removed, but the herc-strip sized runway remained.

Today, it serves as an important staging area in the northern foothills of the Brooks Range. Far enough inland to often avoid coastal fog, yet distant enough from the peaks of the Brooks Range to escape some of the weather conditions associated with the mountains.  It’s location on the haul road, which is maintained year-round, makes it a critical jumping off facility for guides, scientific studies, game surveys, as well as a key emergency strip when weather precludes getting to the coast, or through the mountains.

I have personally experienced the benefits of the Happy Valley airstrip.  Late one fall, the weather was deteriorating to the point we couldn’t make it through the Brooks Range to return to Fairbanks.  After tying up a pair of Super Cubs at Happy Valley, we had to hitchhike in what became a ground-blizzard to Deadhorse, and catch the jet back to town.  Many days later, we drove up the haul-road to pre-heat and fly the airplanes back south of the range.  Yet this airstrip is not listed on a flight chart, nor is any information provided about it in the Alaska Chart Supplement.  While not advocating that all back-country strips should necessarily be charted, this is one that needs to be on the charts so pilots can find it, when needed.

Happy Valley Airstrip. Not what we normally think of as a backcountry airstrip, this former pipeline camp on the Dalton Highway is used today, and should be recognized as an airstrip.

Backcountry Survey
Backcountry airstrips are an important, and often neglected component of our airport system.  Now that DOT has started looking at this segment of our airports, it is important that the people that use them speak up.  The online survey provides an opportunity to identify the issues you think are important when it comes to these landing areas.  Under current budget conditions, we can’t expect the State of Alaska to devote a lot of resources to them, but recognizing they exist and perhaps taking the first few steps to protect them, could make a great deal of difference in the years to come.

Please take a few minutes to take the survey! https://goo.gl/forms/6aPBJ7h3BbzS7oxq1

Follow your Lead, and then perhaps later you will lead.

Planning, Precision, Performance: how formation training can help us all be more proficient pilots.

I used to think that formation flight was dangerous for the average pilot. When asked by Mooney Caravan formation pilots why I didn’t partake I would say something like, “I don’t want to fly so close to someone I don’t know.” In July of 2016, I attended my first formation clinic held in Chino California. Later that month I flew right seat in the Mooney Caravan arrival into Oshkosh/AirVenture. Before those experiences, I suppose I had a certain amount of naïveté that allowed me to hold the belief that non-military G.A pilots would not be safe to fly formation. Boy was I wrong, on so many levels.

I have just returned from the sixth annual Gunfighters Formation Clinic at Yuma International Airport/MCAS. The three-day multifaceted event had something for everyone and gave us an opportunity to improve formation skills, demonstrate proficiency for mass arrivals to AirVenture/Oshkosh and socialize with the other, now hopelessly addicted, formation pilots.

For the second year, the Gunfighters Formation Clinic included training opportunities with the Red Star Pilots Association.  The Red Star Pilots Association is a federal 501(c) (3) non-profit whose mission is to promote and preserve the safe operation, display and enjoyment of all aircraft — jet to prop, aerobatic, sport, war bird and utility — especially those originating in the current and former communist block nations. They are a signatory with national Formation and Safety Team [F.A.S.T.] This allows them to train, qualify, and manage civilian formation pilots in the United States and Canada for the safe conduct of formation flight displays in the US and Canadian air show industry. Several of our attendees were awarded their wingman or lead cards at the training.

Our FBO Host was Million Air FBO.  James “Curly” Combs the General Manager of Million Air gave us an incredible experience.  The facilities and staff were top notch. The food from their Jet-a-Way Café was down-home and delicious. Yuma International Airport is a large airport facility that shares runways with the Marine Corps Air Station. I assumed that perhaps the FBO might reflect a larger more corporate feeling. My assumption couldn’t have been further from the actuality. Once arriving I immediately felt like part of the family.

Any aviation volunteer knows that there is a lot that goes into the planning and execution of a formation clinic, or for that matter, any  flying event.  The behind the scenes work that starts several months prior to the event is extensive.  Safely and effectively mixing a full range of formation pilots, IP’s and safety pilots is a daunting task that requires a dedicated Air Boss with a substantial  background.  Airspace planning, ingress/egress routes, altitudes, sector frequencies, and publications take a great deal of thought and effort.  Not to mention training materials, and standardization of instruction/mentoring. Kudos to organizer Chuck Crinnian, Air Boss Larry Brennan and all the others.

Just over forty airplanes came in for the weekend. The Thursday night ground school covered numerous topics including:

  • Ground Operations
  • Element Takeoff
  • Interval Takeoff
  • 2 Ship Formation Procedures
  • Fingertip Position
  • Fingertip Maneuvering
  • Route Position
  • Turns in Route
  • Cross Under
  • Echelon
  • Close Trail
  • Formation Recoveries
  • Element Approach and Landing
  • VFR Traffic Pattern Recoveries
  • Overhead Pattern
  • Taxi and Shutdown
  • Formation Maneuver and Rejoins
  • Four Ship Formation Procedures

Then our challenge was to actually fly those procedures on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We began each exercise with an extensive brief. For me, this led to an increase sense of security knowing there was a procedure in place. I was paired with a seasoned CFI or Mentor pilot both days. The weather and landscape were beautiful in Yuma. Unfortunately, while flying formation I had my eyes glued to Lead and couldn’t see the majesty. The second day I got to fly Lead in a two-ship formation. I got a better look at the scenery that day.

All missions ended with detailed debrief covering negative and positive elements of the flight. Psychologically, the flying is challenging not only because of the proximity of other aircraft, but of the new nomenclature to be learned and maneuvers. I always find it interesting to be a “learner.” As a professional psychotherapist, aviation writer, and presenter, I am most comfortable leading and being an expert. Being a newbie was an exercise in patience with myself as I learned and grace when I made a mistake.

As is often typical with training of any sort, my abilities the second day were better than the first. The formation flying itself was very mentally and physically challenging. Taking off and landing in elements is a thrilling experience. I pushed myself to fly as precisely as possible and to increase my comfort level flying close to Lead. My level of focus was so intense that I found myself fatigued at the end of the day. Both nights we had a chance to share dinner as a group and to establish bonds of camaraderie.

Overall, the training experience was excellent. With focus, perseverance and encouragement the skills were all within my reach. I feel strongly that my formation training has made me a safer and more precise pilot. I would encourage all pilots to investigate formation training in their regions. I also left Yuma feeling like I had made some life-long friendships. I look forward to attending at least one more clinic before Oshkosh, then on to the mass arrival. We also learned the two most important rules in formation flight. #1 Don’t hit Lead, and #2 Refer to #1.

For more information on formation training and arrivals to OSH17:

Mooney Caravan: http://www.mooneycaravan.com/

Bonanzas to Oshkosh: https://www.b2osh.org/Web/B2OSH/Pages/Training/TrainingRegional.asp

Cessnas to Oshkosh: http://www.cessnas2oshkosh.com/920home.aspx

Cherokees to Oshkosh http://www.cherokees2osh.com/index.asp

Formation Flying Inc.: http://www.ffi.aero/

 

 

Jolie Lucas is a Mooney owner, licensed psychotherapist, and instrument rated pilot. She is the Founder of two grass-roots general aviation service groups: Mooney Ambassadors and the Friends of Oceano Airport. Presently Jolie is the Vice President of the California Pilots Association. She is the 2010 AOPA Joseph Crotti Award recipient for GA Advocacy. She is the Director and Executive Producer of the documentary: Boots on the Ground: the Men & Women who made Mooney©. She co-created Mooney Girls Mooney Girls and Right Seat Ready!© She is the creator of Pilot Plus One© She is an aviation educator and writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: Mooney4Me

Alaska Pilot Reports Are Increasing!

When we pick up the mike and file a Pilot Report (PIREP) with Flight Service or ATC, we add an observation that helps the entire aviation community.  If weather is questionable, the first aircraft out in the morning is often the “weather ship” that reports conditions back to other pilots waiting to make their decision to fly. When we are that pilot sitting at the airport, with a forecast that could go either way, it can be very frustrating to wait for that first report along the route, or from the other side of the mountain pass.  Fortunately, a lot of attention has been given to PIREPs in the last couple of years, which I am cautiously optimistic to say is starting to produce results!  I would like to share with you some of the efforts that have brought us this far.

Lack of PIREPs concerning

Aircraft at the 2015 Valdez Fly-In, but no PIREPs in the system. Photo by Russ Ingram.

Aircraft at the 2015 Valdez Fly-In, but no PIREPs in the system. Photo by Russ Ingram.

The Valdez Fly-In, that takes place nominally the second weekend in May, is the largest event of its kind in the state. When the weather allows,  several hundred aircraft fly in to participate in the short field landing contest or other competitive events, or pilots may want to observe, socialize and simply enjoy aviation.  For the past couple of years, the weather has been a little dicey flying into Valdez, and yet both in 2014 and 2015 there were almost no PIREPs filed by those that did make it in.  This would have been a tremendous tool to help those flying behind decide if it was good idea to fly into what can certainly be considered some challenging terrain.   When I shared that observation with our friends at the Alaska Flight Service Program, they were interested enough to stand up a small working group to dig into the problem.  A number of industry organizations, including the Alaska Airmen Association, Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation and the Alaska Air Carriers Association have been meeting with FAA, the FAA Weather Camera Program, National Weather Service, National Institute of Occupational Health and others to explore issues regarding how PIREPs are collected and distributed — as well as look at ways to encourage pilots to file more of them.  Based on the work of this group, Flight Service has been more actively training their staff to solicit reports beyond the generic request normally received when pilots open a flight plan.

NTSB joins the party
Separate to this Alaska based activity, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had seen a number of cases nationally in which PIREPs — had they been shared in a timely fashion — could have averted several accidents.   We learned that the NTSB was undertaking a special investigation into PIREPs, which prompted AOPA to conduct a national survey on the topic.  Many hours went into designing, conducting, promoting and evaluating the results. Last May, approximately 700 pilots took the time to respond to the survey—thank you to those who participated!  The survey revealed some interest results, here are a few highlights:

  • 83% of the pilots said PIREPs were “very” or “extremely” important for aviation safety
  • 71% indicated the emphasis on PIREPs during initial flight training was “little” to “none.”
  • While three-quarters of the respondents said they filed reports, 84% said they did so “sometimes” or “rarely.”

There are more results from the survey, but I will save that for another time.  A couple of interesting perceptions came out of the study. There is a general feeling that ATC isn’t interested in recording PIPEPS, with one respondent stating, “I have little confidence my PIREPS are going past their ears.” It was also felt that the reports are mostly a high-altitude feature.  The chief problem expressed was a shortage of reports, especially at lower altitudes: “Too few PIREPs are available for my route of flight to be useful” and “For flying lower than 5,000 feet, there just isn’t much PIREP information available.”  There were many complaints about difficulties in filing PIREPs, some of which are related to procedures in the lower 48 states rather than here in Alaska.  The feature that pilots wanted to see the most was an automated filing ability through applications such as Foreflight.

The NTSB held a two-day PIREP Forum at the end of June in Washington, DC where these and other results were shared with an impressive mixture of industry and government aviation stakeholders.  We are expecting to see what the NTSB gleaned from their investigation, due out in a report any day now.

The graphic display of PIREPs make it easier to access during flight planning (courtesy of SkyVector.com)

The graphic display of PIREPs make it easier to access during flight planning (courtesy of SkyVector.com)

Access to PIREPs has improved
It has become easier to access PIREPs in the past two years.  In addition to getting them via phone from FSS, or in a DUATs briefing there are now several websites that have either added or upgraded their capabilities to include graphic displays of PIREPs.  The National Weather Service’s Alaska Aviation Weather Unit has featured PIREPs for years, but now has a more dynamic zoomable map.  The FAA weather camera website has added PIREPs as a feature that the user may select to view, and SkyVector.com added reports with a graphic symbol that gives pilots a clue to the nature of the report as you plan your flight.  More details on these systems and features may be found on an earlier blog post (http://blog.aopa.org/vfr/?p=2737).

Comparison of PIREPs filed with the Alaska Flight Service Program for three months in 2015 to 2016

Comparison of PIREPs filed with the Alaska Flight Service Program for three months in 2015 to 2016

Results are encouraging
The good news is that the Alaska Flight Service Program reports some dramatic increases in PIREPs filed this summer in contrast to last year.  The figure below shows reports received by Flight Service for the months of July, August and September.  The graphic is a little complex, but shows a combination of the total number of 2016 PIREPs and the percent change from the same months in 2015. A third variable is the change in “traffic” for those months. By traffic, we mean the number of radio contacts FSS had with pilots that month.  For example, in July of  2016 there were over 3,000 PIREPs filed with Alaska FSS.  That was a 39% increase over July, 2015 while there was only 1.3% more traffic over the past year.  August saw a 26% increase in the PIREPs, while the number of calls to FSS was actually lower than the previous year. September was the lowest number of PIREPs received at just under 2,500, which still represented an 8 percent increase over the previous year.  I am still puzzling over whether September was such a good weather month that fewer pilots felt the need to file, but it is still very good news overall.

Comparison of PIREPs filed with the Alaska Flight Service Program for three months in 2016 in comparison to 2016

Looking ahead
It is easy to look at a single set on numbers and get excited, but there is still work to be done. One thing that was clear from the NTSB Forum—there are more audiences for PIREPs than just pilots. The weather forecasters say they rely on them heavily to create and validate their forecasts.  Atmospheric scientists archive and use PIREPs to develop and test new forecasting models.  ATC uses them to decide when to change arrival and departure routes during dynamic weather situations, and of course the pilot behind you who hasn’t yet entered the mountain pass is waiting to hear what conditions are like today.

Please be sure to file a PIREP or two as you fly, even if it reporting flight good conditions. The weather forecasters are also interested in reports that confirm the lack of turbulence, or other conditions that might be better than the forecast.  They will change the extent of an AIRMET or create a SIGMET, sometimes on the strength of a single report.  If you want to contribute to improving safety in the aviation community, but feel you need to bone up on how to give a PIREP, the AOPA Air Safety Institute offers an online PIREPs Made Easy class (https://www.aopa.org/training-and-safety/online-learning/online-courses).

The real test will be to see how many PIREPs are filed leading up the Valdez Fly-In next May!

An Ill Wind

A wind sock in a stiff breeze.

What’s not to like about tailwinds? They’re usually a good thing, giving us better ground speed, less fuel consumed, and reduced trip time. But sometimes I’ll have a headwind on a round trip in both directions on the same day. Thought there was a constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy!! At altitude, tailwinds are wonderful but they are very bad in three places: takeoff, landing, and base leg.

On takeoff, the ground roll and climb are extended—significantly. There are a few places in the outback where you have to take off downwind (usually downhill) because of rapidly rising terrain. One of our longtime readers in Alaska asked if there was any guidance from an official source regarding tailwind takeoffs and landings. The FAA had little to say other than to ask the locals and, “Y’all be careful.” So a phone call when going to one of those strips would be a really good idea.

Much the same for landing: There doesn’t seem to be much engineering data on the effects of tailwinds, other than to not exceed 10 knots of tailwind component. Cessna’s 182 POH (1979 model) says that for “tailwinds up to 10 knots, increase takeoff distance by 10 percent for each 2 knots.” To clear a 50-foot obstacle at a 1,000 foot elevation and 10 degrees C, requires 1,430 feet with everything working perfectly and with no wind. A 6-knot tailwind theoretically adds another 430 feet. Landing under similar conditions with the same tailwind and 40 degrees flaps, which the newer C182s don’t have, increases landing distance from 1,365 to 1,775 feet. The strut-based Cessnas have rather draggy airframes, despite other endearing qualities, so your distance will definitely vary in a cleaner machine. Another way to figure this is to add about 100 feet per knot above the recommended no-wind landing speed. A 5-knot tailwind adds, very roughly, 500 feet to the landing distance.

Consider the Air Safety Insitute’s 50/50 solution to a no-wind condition and add or subtract from there: To clear the 50-foot obstacle, either on takeoff or landing, add 50 percent to whatever the POH says. That provides the margin for all the caveats that the perfect aircraft, flown by the perfect pilot, under perfectly known conditions would achieve but you and I probably will not. In addition to that, add the tailwind factor—and if the runway is contaminated or wet, reconsider Dude!

Dangerous Tailwinds!!

Now there’s a more dangerous condition that gets scant attention, in my view, in most training handbooks and by CFIs—the tailwind on base leg. We’re always told to be careful about the base-to-final turn, but what are we to be careful of? You know the drill…overshoot the final approach course, which leads many accident pilots to maintain a roughly 30-degree bank angle, use too much inside rudder to slew the nose around, and hold back pressure to keep the aircraft from descending. You know what comes next…from which there is usually no recovery.

In scanning accident reports, we don’t often see what the wind in the traffic pattern was at the time of the stall, but I have a strong hunch that there was a tailwind on base in a number of crashes that may have contributed. If one flies downwind at the usual lateral distance, that crosswind on final may have a tailwind component on base leg and becomes the perfect set up for overshooting final. It all depends on whether the wind is coming from the same side as the downwind leg of the pattern. Some pilots stand accused of adding cross-country time to their logbooks while in the traffic pattern. In a light-wind condition perhaps some gentle “guidance” is appropriate (but not on frequency). However, if there’s much tailwind component on base, be tolerant and perhaps appreciative that the pilot ahead of you, who is wide, is providing some maneuvering room to make that all-important turn.

Now, a question: If there’s a strong crosswind component on base, what do you think about flipping the pattern to the opposite side? Two thoughts come to mind:

  1. If the wind is that strong, only mad dogs and Englishmen will be flying, so it’s unlikely there will be many, if any, other aircraft in the pattern.
  2. How strong should the wind be for one to go contrary—if, in fact, you think that makes sense?

IF this makes any sense, it should only be done with aircraft equipped to so announce on CTAF (unlikely that many NORDO aircraft would be flying on such a day).

I suspect there will be strongly held opinions on both sides—so let’s hear from you. Be tolerant and respectful of alternate viewpoints.

Safe pilots are always learning, and the Air Safety Institute’s goal is to ensure pilots have a wealth of information to keep flying safely—like this Takeoffs and Landings Safety Spotlight. Help us to keep educating pilots on safety issues by donating to the AOPA Foundation today.

Why does what happens at Santa Monica Airport matter?

Santa Monica airport has been in the news lately.  I decided to ask a few of my aviation friends from New York to Oregon, including Christian Fry the President of the Santa Monica Aviation Association, a pretty simple question. “Why does what happens at Santa Monica airport matter?” I hope the answers are thought-provoking and insightful. As well, that you feel called to help protect Santa Monica because in doing so, you are protecting hundreds of other airports, large and small.

Photo credit: Jim Koepnick

Photo credit: Jim Koepnick

First, the systematic strangulation of SMO businesses and tenants by the City of Santa Monica sets a really damaging precedent in regards to our aviation infrastructure. If closure were successful using these techniques, this precedent could effect over 200 other airports given back from the Federal government after WWII with the same type of transfer agreement. This applies to many smaller GA airports and some majors like Orange County/John Wayne. In many ways, Santa Monica Airport is a canary in the coal mine for the rest of our country’s airports. Second, the tangible economic and public value of airports is real and obvious. SMO generates over $250 million dollars of direct economic impact annually and we must always remember it’s value as a disaster relief and evacuation resource in times of emergency. A third consideration is the real protections SMO’s airspace provides. The 200 ft. AGL FAA limit on building heights for a 3.8 mile radius around SMO protects surrounding communities from development. Effectively, closure of SMO and the loss of its airspace would fundamentally alter the landscape of the entire Westside of Los Angeles. SMO’s airspace protects the Westside from skyscrapers and the absence of this protection would surely lead to high rise development and its associated increases in density and traffic. Additionally,  all arrivals that use the SMO VOR into LAX (500+ aircraft per day) are height restricted to 5-7K over the SMO Delta airspace. If SMO closed, you might see the crossing altitudes go down 2-3K feet and the perceived noise on the ground would be exponentially louder 24/7.  Finally,  let’s not forget the City of Santa Monica’s blatant dishonesty regarding the facts of this issue, their wasting of millions of taxpayer dollars fighting the FAA and their admitted misappropriation of millions of dollars of airport funds all in a decades long effort to close and redevelop one of our Nation’s oldest and most valuable airfields to benefit the few and negatively impact the majority, forever.

—-Christian Fry, President Santa Monica Airport Association, Santa Monica California

Photo credit: Jim Koepnick

Photo credit: Jim Koepnick

While even the thought of closing Santa Monica airport strikes to the heart of someone who is a pilot, it also strikes to the soul of many of us non-pilots. Why would that be, if we are only connected to aviation indirectly? The short answer is because it is really about more than just the freedom of flight…it is about plain, old freedom. It’s about the freedom to have a voice, to have a vote. To not be outmaneuvered by outside interest groups and lawyers looking for loopholes and technicalities. Even the consideration of closing down an airport, let alone one with such a fabled history, fills my mind with the classic battles of good and evil. So is this where I raise the flag, bring out the apple pie and march to support the underdog? In my simplistic, creative mind…maybe. Because keeping Santa Monica airport open is symbolic to keeping airports open all around the country. And symbolic for letting us all know that we all should have a voice in our freedoms.

—Jim Koepnick, Aviation Photographer, Oshkosh Wisconsin

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

The future of Santa Monica Airport is significant for a number of reasons. One is the very important issue of community security. Anyone who lives in Southern California or visits there frequently knows the entire, heavily populated area is just one car wreck away from gridlock. If, God forbid, some major catastrophe hits the area, the airport could instantly become worth its entire landmass in gold when you consider it could be the only way to quickly get emergency crews and supplies, and medical transports, into and out of the community. Ask anyone impacted by Hurricane Katrina about how valuable community airports became in getting even the basic supplies into the area.

In the aviation safety world, much is emphasized on human factors. One such factor that should be considered is the fact we have a tendency not to appreciate or understand the importance of something until it is already gone. Too often, we are easily sold ideas based on misguided information. This seems to be the case in Santa Monica and other areas threatened with airport closures. People build a home close to the airport and then complain about the noise. Then, developers see gold on the property and jump into the fray to convince community leaders that the property is a gold mine of tax revenue just waiting for them. The fact is airports are already a gold mine that contribute much more than is ever effectively recorded in economic impact. Most important is the airport’s contribution to the community’s peace of mind in the event air transportation of people or supplies is needed in an emergency. How can you put a price tag on that?

—Mark Grady, Aviation writer, speaker and filmmaker

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

If you keep up with any aviation news from any of the alphabet groups, you know that there has been controversy surrounding the Santa Monica airport for the past several years.

The issue is not unique to Santa Monica. At any given time, dozens of airports in the country are being pressured to shut down and the empty space turned into tax generating commercial, industrial or residential use. This shortsighted view is a dangerous one. Airports serving general aviation as well as airports serving air-carriers are part of this country’s transportation infrastructure. The argument that general aviation airports exist only to serve the “fat cats” and their private jets is a hollow one. I’ll counter it by asking why an airliner full of inebriated tourists traveling from Honolulu to LAX on their way home from a cruise is more important than an business jet with the CEO of a multi-billion dollar international corporation traveling from Honolulu to Santa Monica to close an important deal that will benefit the local economy? It isn’t!

The billions of dollars lost by US airlines in the past decade are testament to the failed business model that the majority of them operate under. At least corporate and business aviation pays their bills. Let the airlines continue to run themselves into the ground at the major airports. Corporate and business aviation needs the “Santa Monicas” of this country to continue building the economic health of this country after the beating it has taken in the past decade.

—Jonathan “JJ” Greenway flies corporate jets internationally for a Hong Kong based company, is a CFII and active aircraft owner who lives in Frederick Maryland.

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

What happens at Santa Monica matters because it’s such a high profile case. The message needs to be that GA is less of a risk than the boulevard running past your front door and the noise it introduces to your neighborhood is substantially less in every regard than that delivery truck or leaf blower that folks accommodate without even thinking. As with so many other airport “controversies,” the Santa Monica Airport battle is about pilots trying to fend off a land grab from cynical commercial and government concerns trying to exploit residents’ fears to accomplish their questionable development goals.

—Robert Goyer, Editor in Chief, Plane & Pilot Magazine, Austin Texas

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

My ad agency specializes in two sectors, aviation and tourism. I believe these two sectors fit nicely together as general aviation airports are an under utilized asset for the cities they serve, and are a gateway to bring valuable tourism business into their areas. I have worked for years to recommend to my tourism clients that they need to promote the benefits of their region to pilots seeking new destinations, because pilots generally have discretionary income and are always looking for new places to fly their airplanes.

The financial contributions that airports bring to a city can be found in many areas, from jobs to secondary spending and yes, tourism purchases. Transient pilots flying into an airport like Santa Monica Municipal Airport (KSMO) need rental cars, meals, hotel rooms and fuel, and many continue their spending in the region by visiting local attractions or conducting business. Each airport – whether it’s a large field like KSMO or a small strip at the edge of a rural town – represents a money machine for the area, and they need to be identified as such. To close any airport means a guarantee of often substantial losses to the region, and because of this, each and every airport needs to be preserved.

—Dan Pimentel, founder of the Airplanista blog and President/Art Director of Celeste/Daniels Advertising, Eugene, Oregon.

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

The answer to the question depends largely on who you are, where you live, and what sort of life you hope to live in the future. If you’re an aircraft owner who bases his or her airplane at Santa Monica the answer is obvious. For the sake of convenience and comfort, that individual would prefer Santa Monica to remain open. That aircraft owner would prefer to keep their friends, their connections, their hangar, and their normal routine in place.

But what about the kid living nearby? What good does an airport do for a teenager living on South Bundy Drive? That kid grows up with airplanes zipping over his or her house day after day. Piston driven propellers drilling holes through space as turbines turn heat to thrust and propel business owners, movie stars, and trophy wives off to Las Vegas, Chicago, and New York. What good does that do?

It’s a fair question. The answer is simple. It provides opportunity that can’t be delivered by any other means.

Perhaps that kid can pull down a part-time job at the local Circle K, or the garage across the street. But what if he or she could wrangle an entry-level position at a flight school, or one of several maintenance shops on the field, or the FBO, instead. That entry level job might lead to a career in the aviation or aerospace industry, taking that teenager farther economically, socially, and geographically than they ever dreamed. It’s happened before. In fact it’s happened tens of thousands of times.

There are no guarantees in life, of course. Not for Santa Monica and not for any other airport, industry, or individual. But where there is opportunity, there is hope. Where there is hope, people persevere and thrive even under the most challenging circumstances. With Santa Monica Municipal up and running there is industry, entertainment, a pervasive incentive to pursue education as a lifelong goal – and there is hope. Without it, there might be a slightly larger park, or a cluster of high-rise condos, or an office park. None of which can inspire the dreams, the innovation, or the historically significant production Santa Monica Municipal Airport has given the world.

Santa Monica Municipal Airport matters for the same reason the United States of America mattered to my immigrant great-grandfather. It matters because it is the only destination of its kind in the world. And if it is allowed to perish, there will never be another to replace it. Never. And that would be a shameful thing.

—Jamie Beckett, Writer, Winter Haven Florida

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Here is a summary of where the legal fight stands. The initial Instrument of Transfer with the City of Santa Monica obligated to operate the airport as an airport forever. A federal lawsuit by City challenged the federal obligations. The City said that they didn’t know there federal obligations to keep the airport an airport. The Judge dismissed the case, but soon the City appealed. The appeal went to 9th Circuit court and they ruled that this first judge needed to rule on the merits, and the case went back to District Court. The new court date is in August 2017. This case is everything. SMAA, NBAA, AOPA, are all engaged on this court case and seek to bolster evidence which proves that City knew they federally obligated and have to keep airport and airport forever.

I would like to give my readers a call to action. Support the SMAA financially as the legal fight is very expensive. Link: https://santamonicaairport.nationbuilder.com/join_online

Write the Santa Monica City Counsel and express your concern about what they are doing.

1685 Main St #200, Santa Monica, CA 90401 or email:  [email protected]

Write the FAA administrator and let them know that they need to spend time and resources to protect SMO.

Federal Aviation Administration
Office of the Associate Administrator for Airports (ARP)
800 Independence Avenue SW
Washington DC 20591]

Jolie Lucas is a Mooney owner, licensed psychotherapist, and instrument rated pilot. She is the Founder of two grass-roots general aviation service groups: Mooney Ambassadors and the Friends of Oceano Airport. Presently Jolie is the Vice President of the California Pilots Association. She is the 2010 AOPA Joseph Crotti Award recipient for GA Advocacy. She is the Director and Executive Producer of the documentary: Boots on the Ground: the Men & Women who made Mooney©. She co-created Mooney Girls Mooney Girls and Right Seat Ready!© She is the creator of Pilot Plus One© She is an aviation educator and writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: Mooney4Me

Two Airplanes in One

Every pilot learns about and is tested on weight & balance. By the time a checkride is scheduled, a student can not only compute the numbers but also expound on the pros and cons of forward and aft center-of-gravity locations, as well as the effect of exceeding the limits in either direction.

But while they “know” weight & balance, do they really know it? Since training flights typically occur with the same payload located at the same stations, few pilots experience anything beyond a single profile: a student and instructor seated next to each other, empty rear seats (assuming the aircraft has them, of course), and a fairly consistent fuel load.

Tailwheel pilots might be an exception, as many of these airplanes feature tandem seating, and removing the instructor from the ship can result in a noticeable shift in C.G. — especially if the airplane is soloed from the front. In addition, two-seaters tend to be lighter, and the lower gross weight means a larger percentage change in the airplane’s gross weight when the CFI is not on board. For example, a J-3 Cub at max gross weighs about 1,200 pounds. When it comes time for the student to solo, the airplane is suddenly 17% lighter. If you’re flying a C-172R, that same instructor represents only 8% of the airplane’s maximum gross weight.

Even when I flew turboprops, we always operated with the same weight and C.G. profile. We were dropping sterilized fruit flies from ancient U-21As over southern California, and the payload and fuel were operationally identical every day.

So it can come as a bit of a surprise when you move up to a larger, more powerful airplane and realize that it’s actually two airplanes in one. The Gulfstream IV is like that. Not because there’s anything special about it, mind you — it’s just a consequence of how the airplane is used. Unlike airliners, which rarely fly without a full load, business jets fly a wider variety of operations. Extremely short legs (I regularly flew one that was about 4 nautical miles) to very long ones (~4,000 nm). Sometimes the plane was jam-packed with people and “stuff”, while on other days it was literally empty aft of the cockpit. We’ll fly into a 4,500 foot strip (Watsonville, CA) or a 16,000 foot one in Denver. You just never know where you’ll be going next.

I distinctly recall being surprised by the performance differential between light and heavy weights, because everyone had crowed about how the jet has such a forgiving C.G. range. It’s darn near impossible to load the G-IV outside of it’s allowable center-of-gravity range, no matter where you place passengers or cargo. As a result, I had interpolated that ease of operation onto the whole subject of weight-and-balance.

Some aircraft are easily thrown out of limits. The Pitts S-2B comes to mind. Pretty much any two adults will put you neatly outside of the approved CG envelope. The first time I ran a weight-and-balance for the Pitts, I drove myself batty analyzing the numbers, convinced there must be something wrong with my computations. Was it possible that the world’s most historic and beloved two seat aerobatic airplane couldn’t legally fly aerobatics with two people on board? Yep.

Anyway, back to the Gulfstream. The difference in performance between hot/heavy and light/cool conditions is dramatic. A 74,600 lb max gross takeoff from Toluca, Mexico (elevation: 8,500 feet) on a 90 degree day might yield an initial cruise climb rate of 2,000 fpm. That doesn’t sound bad, but Toluca sits in a valley and is surrounded by an impressive array of tall mountains.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, a 48,000 lb takeoff from San Francisco on a 50 degree morning could produce 6,000 fpm. I’ve launched out of there on re-positioning flights to Los Angeles and been well into the flight levels by the time I crossed the coastline on a downwind leg off runway 28R.

Aside from the visceral differences, the high/hot performance issue tends to get a pilot’s attention because we are always planning for the worst case scenario: an engine failure close to or right after takeoff. High-altitude airports tend to be located near high terrain, and unfortunately that’s when single-engine climb performance suffers most. Using the Toluca example, the rate-of-climb on a single engine might be well under 1,000 feet per minute.

For those of you who fly single engine airplanes, you’re probably thinking “yeah, cry me a river”. That’s understandable. But keep in mind you can land a small, light airplane just about anywhere. Oh, you might bend some metal, but you’ll probably also walk away. The significantly higher weight and speed of larger aircraft means they don’t have that luxury. You either clear the obstacles along your flight path or end up memorialized in at NTSB report.

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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