Category Archives: Aviation

Writings about aviation, including chronics of my flight lessons, product reviews, and so on.

GATTS day 4: all sorts of approaches, plus “Lady Liberty”

I’m writing this recap a few days behind, and by now honestly lots of the flying is a blur– so I may have missed a few details here and there. Feel free to request a refund of your purchase price.

Day 4 started in the airplane, and whew. We flew arcs on the VOR-A at Emporia, then went to El Dorado, Kansas (which I never even knew existed) for fuel and an ILS approach. The airport there is named for Jack Thomas, a Marine fighter ace in World War II, and there is a nifty commemorative plaque. I hope he wasn’t watching, because I flew clumsily and nearly blew the approach. It didn’t help that on final approach I was distracted by a loud beeping; our backup radio was picking up a nearby emergency locator transmitter (ELT) that someone had accidentally triggered. Peter suggested that perhaps Captain Thomas’ ghost had affected my approach. Maybe he’s right….

Capt. Jack Edwards, USMC. Semper Fidelis.

Capt. Jack Thomas, USMC. Semper Fidelis.

When we left, our next stop was Hutchinson, where we flew the localizer backcourse (LOC BC) approach to runway 31. In a previous entry, I mentioned that an ILS provides precision lateral and vertical guidance; the lateral component is based on a radio transmitter known as the localizer. It transmits a narrow beam aligned with the runway centerline.. but it can broadcast in both directions. Hutchinson is a great example: the localizer on runway 13 is used for the ILS 13 and for the LOC BC 31. The difference: when you fly the backcourse, is that the course deviation indicator (CDI) is backwards! It’s still showing your lateral deviation from the runway centerline, but its direction is reversed than it would be on the front course. So instead of turning right when the needle is to the right of center, you turn left. This is wicked confusing until you get used to it. Having the GPS in map mode helps a lot because you get a good picture of the correct track to the localizer line.

After a pretty good landing at Hutchinson, we ate at the Airport Steakhouse. Sadly, there was no steak, but the buffet was decent. Right next to the main building, there’s a large repair shop, Midwest Malibu, that specializes in Piper Malibu, Meridian, and Mirage aircraft– very pretty, multi-million dollar birds. We walked over and had a quick tour, which was neat; I always like seeing the guts of interesting machinery. The highlight of the stop in Hutchinson for me was seeing Lady Liberty, the A-26 bomber flown by the Commemorative Air Force. She had an engine failure on final approach, so the picture below was carefully framed not to show the side with the missing engine.


When we left Hutchinson, our next stop was Marshall Army Air Field, part of Fort Riley. We didn’t stop there, of course; instead, we flew what’s known as a precision approach radar (PAR) approach. In a PAR approach, the controller gives you continuous verbal guidance on which way to fly and how your lateral and vertical alignment is holding up. You don’t acknowledge the controller, you just apply course corrections based on what he tells you. It’s both harder and easier than it sounds, but it was neat to do it. Civilian air traffic controllers can conduct similar approaches, but PAR approaches are unique to the military. Then it was back to Manhattan and the GPS for runway 21.

In the afternoon classroom session, we switched gears and moved to a different simulator, this one based on the Garmin G1000. I was familiar with the G1000 for VFR flying, but I hadn’t used it for IFR approaches before. The combination of the G1000 and the GFC700 autopilot is capable of flying a complete approach all the way to landing. Not that we did that, of course, but I did fly a couple of practice approaches into Alexandria, something that will come in handy when I go visit. Today’s classroom topics included more on currency, the start of a few days’ worth of discussions on weather, and coverage of the conditions under which you must designate an alternate airport as part of your flight plan (basically, if the weather at your destination airport is below a certain set of minimums, you have to pick an alternate and make sure you have enough fuel to get there).

Nifty portable G1000 simulator

Nifty portable G1000 simulator

After such a long day, I was pretty tired, so I went back to the apartment, read for a bit, and then headed out to find the Kansas State University rec center, where I’d read that there was a lap pool. Long story short: nope, it’s in another building (the Natatorium), but I eventually found it, got in the water about 845pm, and swam 800m, a new distance record. Then it was home for a turkey sandwich and a good night’s sleep. Luckily I wasn’t further troubled by ghosts.

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GATTS day 3: DME arcs and Nebraska

First, I forgot to mention a couple of other things that Peter and I discussed in the day 2 classroom sessions. We talked about IFR currency rules (remember, kids, 6 6 HIT), as well as the procedures to be used if you lose radio contact with ATC. The most interesting topic to me was the discussion of DME arcs on approaches, like the one shown below:

See that arc? It's called a DME arc. Want to know why? Read on.

See that arc? It’s called a DME arc. Want to know why? Read on.

This is the VOR/DME-A approach to Emporia, Kansas.  Depending on where you are when you join the approach, several different things can happen. If you’re approaching from the southeast, you’ll probably get cleared straight to LUYIY, and you can just fly the approach inbound. If you’re coming from the west side of the airport, you might get sent to the triangle labeled ANUGE (those triangles mark intersections, imaginary points in space that you use for navigation); from the northeast or east, you’d probably go to KICRE. In those latter two cases, you’d fly a constant-distance arc from the intersection to the final approach course. They’re called DME arcs because originally they required you to have a special navigation receiver known as distance measuring equipment. Now you can use GPS instead, unless you happen to have a DME receiver. To fly these approaches, you basically fly to the intersection, fly a distance, turn 10 degrees towards the center of the arc, and fly another distance. Think of it like making a circle out of straight lines. (There’s a decent explanatory video here if you’re interested in more detail).

Anyway, on to day 3’s work. Since we’d finished day 2 in the classroom, day 3’s morning was spent in the airplane. We took off from Manhattan and flew to Marysville (where we shot the GPS 16  approach) and then on to Plattsmouth, Nebraska: my first time to visit the Cornhusker State. I flew the GPS 34 approach, but not until Omaha Approach vectored me all over the place to accommodate some KC-135s working the traffic pattern at Offutt AFB. After landing, we borrowed a crew car and went to– no joke– Mom’s Cafe, where I had a chicken-fried steak about the size of my laptop screen. In fact, it was so big that I couldn’t eat the whole thing and declined the offered dessert.

After fueling the plane, it was off to Beatrice (pronounced “BEE-at-riss”), where I flew an approach– can’t for the life of me remember which one though; then we flew back to Manhattan, shot another GPS approach, and spent some time in the sim practicing ILS and VOR approaches into Topeka. Why Topeka? Tune in tomorrow to find out…



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GATTS day 2: ILS and VOR approaches

Day 2 was a busy day– by this point, I was settled into the apartment and was able to navigate around through Manhattan fairly well. We spent the morning in the classroom talking about various types of approaches, primarily ILS and VOR approaches.

There are two basic types of instrument approaches: precision and non-precision. The method of navigation for the approach determines how precise an approach you can fly. Some approaches give you guidance on whether you’re left or right of the runway centerline (lateral guidance), but you have to figure out your own vertical position. Others give you both lateral and vertical guidance. For example, an LNAV approach gives lateral guidance but no vertical guidance, while an ILS approach gives lateral and vertical guidance. A precision approach is one where vertical guidance is provided by a ground reference, e.g. the glideslope signal transmitted by an ILS. A non-precision approach can still include vertical guidance, but it’s either calculated or measured by something aboard the airplane. For example, my onboard GPS can use barometric pressure differences to calculate the current altitude, and it knows where the airplane is along the approach course. The diagram for each approach includes a profile view that shows what your vertical profile should look like on approach, such as this profile from the ILS to runway 17 at the Montpelier, Vermont airport:

The underline beneath those numbers has a simple meaning: don't go lower than that altitude or you might die.

The underline beneath those numbers has a simple meaning: don’t go lower than that altitude at that point in the approach or you might die.

Let’s say that the GPS sees I am between the REGGI and JIPDO waypoints. It knows that I can descend a maximum of 600′ between the two. By using either GPS altitude data (VNAV) or altitude data derived from the current altimeter setting (Baro-VNAV), it can give me a visual indication of how much I should climb or descend to follow a smooth path along the approach course.

After all that, it was time to go flying in the ancient simulator. This particular sim doesn’t have a GPS but that wasn’t a problem given what we were doing. I (mostly) tamed the roll axis sensitivity and flew pretty well; we flew a couple of approaches and then took a break for lunch at a nearby Mexican place, thence to the airport. Our planned route was pretty interesting: Manhattan-Salina-Newton-Emporia-Manhattan. It makes a pretty square, as you can see below:

Kansas is square. So was our route.

Kansas is square. So was our route.

We flew one approach at each airport; I forgot to note exactly which ones, but I’d guess (based on the approach plate history in my iPad)  the ILS 35 at Salina, the VOR/DME-A at Newton, and one of the GPS approaches at Emporia, plus the GPS at Manhattan. 3 in the sim and 2.6 PIC in the airplane made for another fun-filled day!

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Database debacle: why aviation GPS systems are different

tl;dr: We’ve all been spoiled, and it’s Google’s fault.

All right, maybe it’s not entirely their fault (though I do love a good Google-bashing session), but the widespread availability of Google Maps put incredible price pressure on vendors of mapping data to drop their prices. That pressure led to today’s bounty of mapping applications: Google, Microsoft, and Apple offer high-quality map data on their mobile and desktop operating systems, and there is a huge number of applications that take advantage of this data and mash it up in interesting ways. Most of the major vendors of portable GPS devices quit charging for map data, given that their competition– smartphones– have instant map updates anytime, anywhere.

Sadly, this revolution in cheap, broadly available map data has largely bypassed the aviation world. In part that’s because the number of data sources are small; in the US, you can get approved digital chart data for aviation use from the US government or from a small number of private providers, many of whom take the government data and format it in various ways for specific applications or devices. The approach plates, sectional charts, and other maps that pilots depend on for planning and flying are generally not free (though, in fairness, some sites, such as SkyVector, make lots of data available for free).

If you have a panel-mounted or handheld GPS that’s certified for aviation use, you’ll be paying for regular database updates, one way or another.

This is true for two reasons. The first is that data quality is super important. Things change all the time: people put up new towers, airports open or close, the FAA changes routes to accommodate changes in air traffic patterns, and so on. If your car GPS doesn’t show the street you’re on, no biggie: you’re still on it, and there are probably signs. At worst, you can stop and ask for directions. On the other hand, if your airplane GPS doesn’t include a newly added TV tower along your route of flight, you may be in for a very unpleasant surprise.

The other reason is that the FAA requires you to use only certified and up-to-date data sources for navigation. You may use some data providers or devices for “reference” or “advisory” use, but you can’t depend on them as the sole source of navigation data. For example, the excellent Foreflight app for iOS has charts that display your aircraft’s position (known as “georeferenced” charts), which provides great situational awareness. For $149/year, you get full access to all the visual and instrument navigation charts for US airspace. But the FAA won’t let you use the iPad as a primary navigational instrument for instrument flight. For that, you need an IFR-certified GPS, and those have strict requirements for data quality and timeliness.

As part of my instrument flight course at GATTS, I’ve been learning to use the Bendix/King KLN94 navigator in my airplane. The KLN94 first shipped in (drum roll) 1991. Think about that for a second: I am flying with a GPS system that dates back to the First Gulf War. That said, it’s pretty capable; it can navigate me through almost all the different types of instrument approaches, and its user interface, while clunky, is not that much worse than the very popular Garmin 430/530 that followed it. (For an example of flying the KLN94, see this video.)  When Derek and I bought the plane, I knew the KLN94 database was out of date, but the owner gave us a Compact Flash card with a map update. (Note: yes, I said “Compact Flash.” Remember those? If so, then you are officially old.)

Today I got ready to install the database update on that card.. only to find that it was valid for 1-28 May of this year. That’s right; the whole card had one lousy month of map data on it.. data that was 3 months out of date. Showing up for my checkride with an outdated database in my GPS would lead to instant failure. But I found out about this about 215p on the Friday before a holiday weekend. I won’t say I peed a little, but I was getting unsettled at the prospect of hosing my checkride schedule. As soon as we landed, I called Bendix/King’s “Wingman” service number.. and got their answering machine. Uh oh.

At this point, I was trying to figure out how long it would take me to drive to Olathe, Kansas (not long) to pick up a new database card. Maybe I could lurk outside the Bendix building like a ticket scalper! Or I could hand-write a cardboard sign: “NEED KLN94 UPDATES PLEASE HELP”.

You might be wondering why I didn’t just download a new database update from Bendix/King’s web site. Fair question. See, there’s another problem with aircraft GPS systems. They often have ridiculous systems for providing data updates. KLN94 database updates can be downloaded from Bendix/King’s web site, but the only supported device for loading the databases is a single model of SanDisk CompactFlash card reader or you need a special cable to use it and the software to use that cable only works on Windows 95. Oh, that one card reader? It needs a firmware update, which requires a machine running Win95 to install. Other systems have their own failings, so I’m not picking on Bendix/King, but sheesh.

A second call to their tech support number got me a super helpful gentleman named Shane. He confirmed that only the Holy SanDisk could be used to load database updates, but he passed me over to Lorie, one of the folks in the database update department. She listened patiently to my explanation, refrained from saying how stupid I was to put off the update, and told me the solution: “Go to our web site, order the card, and I’ll make sure you get it tomorrow.” Whew, that seemed simple enough. I went to the web site, created an account, and found the KLN94 updates. For the low, low price of only $280, I could get a new CompactFlash card with data valid from 21 August to 18 September.

That’s right.


I ordered it anyway.

It will be here tomorrow. Then I can update my GPS and pass my checkride. After that, I will expedite installing a GPS system that has a lower ongoing maintenance cost. (In fairness, it’s only $120 to download a single month, and there are deep discounts for subscriptions, but I hope not to have the KLN94 long enough to make a subscription worthwhile.)

So, hats off to Shane and Lorie for their help; thanks to Bendix/King for continuing to support a 24-year-old GPS system, and shame on me for waiting until the last minute to check my database. Bet your boots that won’t happen again.

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GATTS day 1: holds and approaches

My first real day of GATTS started bright and early Tuesday morning. I met Peter at the GATTS classroom facility, which is in a nice office park adjacent to a sports bar and some medical offices. When you walk in, here’s what you see:


Sadly, that wasn’t the simulator that Peter and I were scheduled to use, but more on that later. We adjourned to a small classroom and proceeded to dive into that day’s classroom curriculum. Because GATTS requires its students to pass the written exam before they show up, this was more a review of practical issues surrounding the topics we covered than a tabula rasa introduction. The GATTS class is structured in a fairly standard triad: first you discuss a topic with the instructor, then you do it in the simulator, then you do it in the airplane. These three things may take place on the same day, or they may not. I picked up a few tricks for holds, including what they teach as the “GATTS entry”. Instead of worrying about parallel vs teardrop vs direct, they preach a simpler rule: if you’re coming from the “long” side of the hold, go direct, and if you’re not, fly to the fix, fly 1nm past it, then turn 45 degrees opposite the turn direction for 2nm, then start your procedure turn. For example, let’s say you’re going to fly the published hold at DCU:

The DCU VOR 274 degree hold is that little racetrack-looking thing

The DCU VOR 274 degree hold is that little racetrack-looking thing

If you’re west of the Decatur VOR, just fly until you intercept it; that’s easy. If you’re east, fly to it, fly past it, then turn from 274 degrees to 219 degrees, fly for 2nm, and then do your standard-rate procedure turn– you’ll magically end up about 3nm from the VOR on a heading of 94 degrees. (Try it if you don’t believe me). I was always taught to fly timed legs in a hold, so doing it with DME distance was quite a revelation, and it’s much easierI flew that hold a few times in the simulator, along with a couple of other ones, then we reviewed and flew a few simulated approaches. About the simulator: Flight Simulator 2000 on an ancient Dell running Windows 95. Yep, old school. It shares the common PCATD simulator trait of being super sensitive in the roll axis, so you fly it like you do an A320: put in the amount of roll you want, then take it back out again. Neutralizing the controls in a turn does, basically, nothing; you have to apply an equal amount of opposite aileron to get where you want.

Anyway, I did a decent job in the simulator (flying a total of 4 approaches for 3.3 hours), so we headed out to the airport to go do some bidness. We flew approaches at Abilene (the VOR-DME A), Herington (the GPS 17), and Manhattan (the GPS runway 21, if I remember right) approaches, netting a total of 1.9 PIC hours for the 4 approaches. Sadly I only got 0.1 actual on this outing, but I did learn a great deal about how to coax the ancient KLN94 in the airplane into doing what I want.

The mental effort of learning all this stuff took its toll in the evening; after we put the plane to bed, I went to the grocery store, loaded up on food, then went back to the apartment and did absolutely nothing productive for the rest of the night. It took a while for all that learning to sink in, I guess!

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GATTS day 0: Huntsville to Manhattan

In my last flying post, I explained why I was going to GATTS to get my instrument rating. For the next few posts, I’ll be chronicling my experiences there.

One of the things that appealed to me about GATTS was that you have the option to use your own airplane. Another is that they assign a single instructor to work with each student for the entire course, and (for a modest fee) they’d send the instructor down a day early to ferry the plane back. I wanted to take advantage of that option for two reasons: in case the weather were bad my arrival in Kansas wouldn’t be delayed, and I could use the extra flight time to get a head start on my classwork. I signed up for the ferry option, and, as planned, my instructor, a cheerful fellow named Peter Schmoling, showed up Sunday afternoon. The boys and I took him to dinner to get acquainted, and then Monday morning I picked him up at his hotel and we headed to DCU to start our trip.

We had planned to fly from Decatur to Kennett Memorial in Missouri, thence to Manhattan, Kansas, where GATTS is located. This plan went off without a hitch. I don’t have much to say about the actual flight except that I hand-flew both legs and logged a bunch of simulated instrument time while doing it. It was pretty smooth.

We found that the Kennett airport had a nest of fast food places right near the arrival end of runway 18, so we walked over to McDonald’s and had lunch. After refueling, I got to practice my hot-start techniques. The POH calls for a hot start procedure that’s identical to the cold start, minus priming. After doing some Internet research, I found that the consensus seems to be that the best procedure is to leave the electric fuel pump off, set the throttle to full, mixture to idle, and then start the engine. It took a couple of tries, but this procedure worked and we were off to Manhattan. Our flight was completely uneventful except that we had a controller out of Kansas City Center who sounded just like Cleveland Brown. I took the ILS approach for runway 3, landed, and taxied to the hangar that GATTS provides– it was a tight fit, but with Peter’s help I got the plane in without bending anything.

GATTS includes housing and a car in the course fee. My car was a late-90s Taurus with great air conditioning– the only thing I was really interested in at that point. After handing over a map and the car keys, Peter took off and I drove downtown to my apartment building, which sits over a swanky restaurant named Harry’s. The apartment itself is basic, but nice: a small kitchen (two toasters but no dishwasher), a comfy double bed, a dinette, and a living room with a balcony overlooking the street below. It sort of reminds me of a timeshare beach condo: it has all the necessities but nothing fancy. GATTS maintains 3 apartments in the building for students, and previous occupants had left a small collection of airplane magazines, books, and movies around.

I unpacked, plugged in all my gadgets, and set out to explore.

My nifty apartment building

My nifty apartment building

Right up the street is Manhattan Town Center, a smallish indoor mall. I walked a lap there just to see what was on offer (answer: nothing I wanted except an iPad charging cord, since I’d forgotten mine). I’d spotted several restaurants during my short walk; the closest was Hibachi Hut, which I’d ignored because of the name. When I looked on Yelp, though, I saw that they a) served Cajun food and b) had great ratings, so I went there for dinner and had an excellent shrimp and crab bisque and a dish of andouille and chicken pasta. Friendly, quick service, great cornbread, and a nice selection of local beers made it a very pleasant meal.

Then I decided to explore a bit more; my apartment is right next to the Riley County Courthouse, and further down Poyntz Street is Manhattan City Park. I didn’t make it to the park my first day, but the courthouse has this excellent statue as part of a small courtyard dedicated to American veterans.

Because AMERICA.

Because AMERICA.

By this point I was pretty tired, so I hit the bed. Day totals: 4.8 hours PIC time, 0.5 actual instrument, 4.4 simulated instrument, and 2 approaches. All in all, a great way to start the week!

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Getting geared up for GATTS

So far, since Derek and I bought 706, I’ve logged just over 45 hours flying it. Solo, I’ve gone to Louisiana and Vermont; the boys and I have gone to Pigeon Forge, Demopolis, Atlanta, Anniston, and Tuscaloosa. Now it’s time to step my game up a notch: on Monday, I’m flying to Manhattan, Kansas, for a week of accelerated instrument training with GATTS. A few of the folks I’ve talked to (including family members and coworkers) have asked lots of good questions about this plan, so I thought a quick Q&A might be in order.

Q: What’s an instrument rating?
A: With an instrument rating, you can fly under what the FAA calls “instrument flight rules.” Basically, you can fly in and around clouds, fog, and rain, or in conditions of poor visibility– all by using only the instruments in your cockpit, without being able to see any landmarks or the horizon.

Q: So you can fly in bad weather!
A: Nope. An instrument rating allows you to take off, fly, and land under certain conditions. For example, to legally land at Huntsville’s airport, you must have at least a 200′ ceiling and 1/2 mile visibility. That doesn’t mean it would be safe to do so, just that if the weather is worse than that, you can’t land there. It’s not a license to fly in thunderstorms, blizzards, high winds, and the like, although each year a few people die from confusing “legal” and “safe” and taking off or flying through visible or embedded thunderstorms.

Q: Then why bother?
A: Think of a typical summer day in the South: partly cloudy in the morning, building thunderstorms in the mid-afternoon, then partly cloudy again in the evening. With an instrument rating, you can (legally and safely) penetrate the clouds, fly on top of them, then descend and land lately. You also get guaranteed routing and safety services from air traffic control, whereas when you fly visually those services are available on a best-effort basis.

Q: Kansas? Couldn’t you find a local instructor?
A: I love my instructors here in Huntsville. (Hi, John! Hi, Caroline!) But the big advantage of the GATTS program is that you spend the entire time flying. When I got my private license, my training dragged out because I had to line up 4 factors: my schedule, my instructor’s schedule, the airplane’s schedule, and the weather. By blocking out the time as one chunk, I should be able to build my skills much faster. Kansas is different enough from here that I will have to master the skills of navigation and approach management (in other words, I can’t depend on my knowledge of the local Huntsville area), but it doesn’t have a lot of demanding terrain or complex airspace.

Q: Is it like boot camp, then?
A: Wow, I hope not. There was a lot of yelling when I was in boot camp, for one thing. GATTS says their typical day is from about 830a to 6p. During that time, I’ll be in the classroom with my instructor, flying in the simulator, or flying my airplane. Oh, and eating lunch. The schedule varies from day to day, depending on what we’re working on. We’ll do this every day– weekends and Labor Day included– so that I get the most out of the time. I’ve already been able to carve out time for a few scheduled webcasts and conference calls that I couldn’t move.

Q: Is it expensive?
A: The answer to this question is always “yes” when it comes to aviation.

Q: No, really.
A: Yes, really. If you factor in just the instructor’s time alone, GATTS is more expensive. However, there’s no way on earth that I could get a local instructor to fly with me day in, day out long enough to learn what I need to know. Then I’d end up having to repeat lessons to knock the rust off. The GATTS program also includes lodging in Manhattan and a car to use. Plus, I’ve never been to Kansas.

Q: Why an accelerated program?
A: The best way to get proficient at flying is to fly. The best way to get, and keep, instrument proficiency is to compress your training, then use your instrument privileges regularly. I’ve already had to delay or change travel plans many times to account for vagaries of weather; being instrument-qualified doesn’t eliminate that (hello, thunderstorms!) but it gives me many more options. Ultimately, the airplane is a time machine: it lets me travel to places, and in time windows, where I otherwise couldn’t, so having the ability to fly in weather is really important to me. I want to do it as safely and proficiently as possible.

I’m planning, time and energy level permitting, to keep a daily journal of my experience at GATTS. Stay tuned…

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