Category Archives: Aviation

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

“What could I learn from that?”

Yesterday the boys and I were headed to the Huntsville Museum of Art, which from our house requires taking I-565 eastbound. As we approached the onramp, our progress was slowed by a large volume of backed-up traffic, interrupted by a convoy of fire engines and an ambulance. They headed west, and we eventually got on the road headed east, but not before craning our necks trying to see what the fuss was about. This sort of reaction to an accident or unusual event nearby is quite human. We are very much driven by spectacle, and often our reaction is based out of an unhealthy curiosity.

I say that because one thing I’ve consciously tried to do as a pilot is ask myself “what could I learn from that?” when reviewing aviation accident results. The aviation world has no shortage of well-documented accidents, ranging from the very large to the very small. Let’s leave out big-iron accidents, which are almost vanishingly rare; in the general aviation corner, we have several sources that analyze accidents or near-misses, including the annual Nall Report,the long-running “I Learned About Flying From That” and “Aftermath” columns in Flying, the NTSB accident database, and plenty more besides. So with that in mind, when I saw the headline “2013 F/A-18 crash: Out of fuel, out of time and one chance to land” in Stars and Stripes, my first thought wasn’t “cool! a jet crash!” but rather “Hmm. I wonder if there’s anything in common between flying an F-18 off a carrier and a Cessna off a 7500’ runway.”

It turns out that the answer is “yes, quite a bit.”

The article covers the chronology of an F-18 crash involving an aircraft from VF-103 operating off EISENHOWER. During mid-air refueling (which is frequent but by no means less complex or dangerous for being frequently practiced), the aerial refueling hose became entangled and broke off. This damaged the refueling probe on the Super Hornet. This was serious but not immediately an emergency; the pilot was within easy diversion range to Kandahar, but elected to return to the ship because he thought that’s what the air wing commander wanted them to do. A series of issues then arose— I won’t recount them all here except to say that some of them were due to what appear to this layman to be poor systems knowledge on the part of the pilot, while others involve simple physics and aerodynamics. The article is worth reading for a complete explanation of what happened.

The jet ended up in the water; both pilot and NFO ejected safely.

What did I learn from this? Several things, which I’ll helpfully summarize:

  • The problems all started due to a mechanical failure caused by unexpected turbulence. Takeaway: no matter how good a pilot you are, you aren’t in control of the weather, the air, or the terrain around you.
  • Diverting to Kandahar would have been easy, but the pilot chose not to because he made an assumption about what his CO wanted. Two problems here: what happens when you assume and the pressures we often put on ourselves to get somewhere even when conditions call for a divert or no-go. Could I be subject to the same pressures and make a poor decision because of get-there-itis?
  • “The pilot had been staring at that probe and the attached basket for more than an hour but failed to realize its effect on the fuel pumps.” You can’t ever stop paying attention. The pilot flew for 400 miles without noticing that his fuel state wasn’t what it should have been. Could I be lulled into missing an early indication of a fuel or engine problem during a long, seemingly routine flight?
  • The aircraft was 11 miles from EISENHOWER and was ordered to divert to Masirah, 280NM away, then had to turn back to the ship 24 minutes later. The pilot didn’t decide this, a rear admiral on the ship did. The article didn’t say whether the pilot questioned or argued with that decision. In the civil aviation world, the pilot in command of an aircraft “is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.”  I imagine there’s something similar in military aviation; even if not I’d rather be arguing with the admiral on the deck than having him meet my plane guard after they fish me out of the water. Would I have the courage to make a similar decision against the advice of ATC or some other authority?
  • In at least two instances the pilot made critical decisions— including to eject the crew— without communicating them to his NFO. NASA and the FAA lean very heavily on the importance of crew resource management, in part of situations like Asiana 211, United 173, and American 965. (Look ‘em up if you need to). When I fly am I seeking appropriate input from other pilots and ATC? Do I give their input proper consideration?
I don’t mean for this post to sound like armchair quarterbacking. I wasn’t there, and if I had been I’d probably be dead because, despite years of fantasizing to the contrary, I’m not a fighter pilot. However, I am a very firm believer in learning from the mistakes of others so I don’t make the same mistakes myself, and I think there’s a lot to learn from this incident.

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Stuck! (or, why I need an instrument rating)

Earlier this week I suffered an indignity common to all VFR pilots who fly cross-country: I got stuck someplace by weather.

I’d flown into Houston on Saturday evening, planning to hop down to Corpus Christi the next day and then back to Alexandria Sunday night. The weather Saturday night when I arrived (after a loooong flight featuring a steady 40kt headwind) was marginal VFR, with ceilings of just under 3000’, but the weather cleared a good bit Sunday afternoon to the west. I wasn’t able to get to Corpus, but I had hopes that the weather would clean up Monday morning so I could make it to Alex to surprise Julie before she arrived.

Long story short: not only did the weather not improve, it got quite a bit worse and stayed that way until midmorning Wednesday.

This picture from Tuesday morning sums it up nicely. In the foreground on the left, you see N1298M, my trusty steed. Pretty much everywhere else, you see clouds. The weather at the time I took this was 600’ ceilings with visibility of 3/4 statute miles. Needless to say, that is not legal weather for flying under visual flight rules. Later that day, it started to rain, and rain, and RAIN. I wasn’t the only plane stuck on the ground, but at least the FBO operated by Gill Aviation had a good restaurant (try the pecan-crusted catfish!) and free cookies.

PaulR  Dell 20140224 001

Wednesday morning the weather cleared a bit; it was 2800’ broken and 7SM visibility when I took off. I had to pick my way around a bit; instead of going direct I first went north to Conroe/Lone Star Executive, thence more or less direct to Bastrop (which has an almost deserted airport with a super helpful attendant), thence direct to Redstone. The flight home was perfectly uneventful, with weather steadily clearing as I got further to the east. But being pinned on the ground was aggravating, and it’s clear that I need to work on getting my instrument rating sooner rather than later. Luckily I have a plan…

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Thursday trivia #106

Busy, busy, busy. Just a few quick hits this week:

  • Great article on Mountain View, my former home in California. I agree with its characterization of MTV as “Googletown,” and anyone who’s been there for more than about 15 minutes can testify that the traffic problems mentioned in the article are a) real b) worsening and c) largely a result of Google’s campus location and size. 
  • Could Columbia have been rescued on orbit?
  • MEC is just a few weeks away— I need to get to work on my slides. 
  • I note that all 3 panes of the animation now showing on the MEC home page talk about Office 365 and none mention on-prem. I’m sure that’s just an oversight.
  • My most recent cross-country trip put me over the 250-hour flying mark, with 141 hours as pilot-in-command and nearly 101 hours of cross-country time. Not much, but it’s a start.

 

 

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Conquering the instrument written exam

BLUF: this was one of the most difficult written exams I’ve ever taken, far harder than any IT certification exam I’ve done,

Back in December I wrote about the instrument written, widely alleged to be the most difficult of the FAA’s written exams.

There’s a lot of disagreement over the “right” way to earn a new rating or pilot certificate. What works for me is to study the knowledge base that I have to demonstrate mastery of while I’m working on the airmanship portion. Some folks advocate completing the written before any flight training starts, while others prefer to put the written off until right before the check ride. I guess my approach is somewhere in between. At the time of my December post, I had envisioned taking the test sometime in the first quarter; right after Christmas, I had the opportunity to sign up at a reduced rate for the Aviation Ground Schools program, so I signed up and set a goal of taking the exam on 10 February, the day after the school ended.

My path to the exam involved several different sources of information. The FAA doesn’t publicly post its pool of test questions, but the exam has been around long enough, and the knowledge areas are well-enough known, that all of the major test prep products have more or less the same questions. Each provider has a different approach to how they teach the material; some prefer Gleim, some swear by ASA, and so on. I spent a lot of time with Sporty’s Study Buddy app, which is a pretty faithful simulation of the test, and I read everything about IFR I could get my hands on, including the excellent AskACFI web site and the forums at the Cessna Pilots’ Association web site. Caroline, one of my two flight instructors, gave me a list of stuff to read that was very helpful, and I started working my way through both the FAA Instrument Procedures Handbook and the FAA Instrument Flying Handbook. It’s fair to say that I was stuffing my head with a lot of somewhat disconnected facts and factoids, so I was a little concerned when I headed off for my test prep seminar last weekend.

The seminar I chose is run by Don Berman, who started flying the year I was born and started instructing before I was housebroken.  Online registration was simple and quick, and I got ample preflight notification of everything I needed: what to bring, where the class would be held, what the cancellation policy was, and so on. The seminar I attended was held at the Comfort Inn near Houston Hobby: not a fancy hotel, but adequate for what we needed. When I arrived, Don introduced himself, gave me a fat stack of material, and got us started right on time. He’s an extremely lively presenter and his long experience as a pilot, flight instructor, and classroom teacher shines through, both in his delivery and in the quality of his presentation and visual aids. He’s also clearly got a lot of experience with classroom management; he started and ended on time, gave us adequate breaks, and kept everyone on task. He handed out optional quizzes at lunch both days and Saturday at the end of class, along with a final exam (again optional) on Sunday. The questions were hand-selected by him from the pool of questions in the ASA book; he said that if we could handle them, we should have no trouble with the actual exam.

In fairness, I should point out that Don bills his seminars as test preparation seminars— that’s exactly what they deliver. There were a few areas (like how to interpret an HSI, a navigation instrument that I’ve never flown with) where I came into the seminar with weak skills. Don taught me what I needed to know to dissect and answer test questions about HSIs, but I’m still not ready to jump in an HSI-equipped airplane and use it for a cross-country flight. Which is fine— the test covers all sorts of other things that I will probably never use, including automatic direction finding (ADF) equipment. With the test out of the way, I can now focus on building skills with the equipment I do fly with.

One of my biggest customers asked that I be in Raleigh on the 10th, so I flew there straightaway and stayed there Monday and Tuesday (escaping just in time to avoid their snowmageddon). Today was my first window of time to schedule the test. I was a little concerned that I would forget some of the more esoteric material, and I did. However, my basic knowledge was pretty solid, and I think the random selection of test questions was feeling friendly since I only got a handful of questions on my weaker topics. One interesting aspect of the test is that a new set of questions, with associated diagrams, was just added to the test pool on Monday, so there were some question types that were new to me.

I passed the exam with an 87%, a score I am delighted with. That said, I have a few problems areas that I need to work on as I continue my training, and I realize that passing the written doesn’t mean that I know anywhere close to all that I need to pass my check ride… but I’m getting there!

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On aircraft engines, part 2

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about piston aircraft engines (tl;dr: ancient and expensive technology but generally very reliable). The fact that the general aviation fleet is still powered almost exclusively by these engines may have surprised you, and I wish I could say that it’s getting better right away.. but it’s not. There are some encouraging signs on the horizon, though.

One alternative is to just replace the engine (or its components). This can be done through a process known as supplemental type certification (STC), an existing airframe/engine combination can be changed, often in significant ways, provided you can prove to the FAA’s satisfaction that the changes are not unsafe. For example, there is a well-known STC for many models of Cessna 182 that allows you to run plain auto gas in the engine. There are others covering all sorts of engine upgrades and replacements: Electroair makes an electronic ignition system, Peterson, Texas Skyways, and P.Ponk make kits to replace the 182’s engine with larger and more powerful versions, and there’s even an STC to put an SMA diesel engine up front. At the high end, O & N Aircraft will happily sell you a turbine engine that will turn your Cessna 210 into a real beast (and set you back several hundred thousand dollars, too.)

The problem with STCs is that they tend to be expensive (since the manufacturer has to run the entire FAA approval gauntlet) and very specific (the STC allows you to make the specified changes only to the exact make and model specified in the STC). The expense of STC engine swaps raises the question of how much sense it makes to put an expensive engine into an inexpensive airframe, e.g. Peterson quoted me more than $80,000 to put a new engine into a 1969 182 with a market value of just under $50,000. That didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me. Less expensive STCs, such as the Electroair electronic ignition, may have reliability or efficiency benefits that make sense, but it’s hard to see that happening for an entire engine.

A few manufacturers have made other attempts to give us better engines. One that I remember well was the Mooney PFM, a collaboration between Porsche and Mooney that put an air-cooled Porsche flat-six into the Mooney M20. The PFM had a single-lever throttle (with no manual mixture or prop adjustment), was fuel-injected, and could optionally be turbocharged. However, it wasn’t very successful in the marketplace despite its advantages.

My longtime friend Phil asked a great question in a comment to the previous post: what about turbine and diesel engines? Why don’t manufacturers just use them instead? Well, they do in new aircraft. For example, Piper will happily sell you a Meridian (with a Pratt and Whitney PT6 turbine, the gold standard in turboprop engines) starting at about $2.2 million dollars or a Mirage, which is about 40 knots slower, uses a piston engine, and costs roughly half as much. Turbine engines, of course, are mechanically and operationally simple and very robust, but they are expensive to acquire and maintain, which pretty much rules them out for the class of airplanes that most GA pilots have access to. Diesels are starting to make inroads too; the only model of Cessna 182 you can now buy is the Cessna 182 JT-A, which replaces the old-school piston engine with a 227-hp SR305 diesel (the same as the one available via STC for older 182s). The history of diesel engines for general aviation is long and complicated; suffice to say that Cessna and Diamond are the only two manufacturers I can think of who are currently selling diesel-powered aircraft despite their efficiency advantages. However, the idea of a drop-in diesel STC replacement for the O-470, IO-540, and other popular engines is gaining traction in the market, with both Continental and Lycoming developing products.

More interestingly, Redbird’s RedHawk project is converting Cessna 172s by putting diesel engines and improved avionics in them; I suspect that Redbird will be very successful in selling these refurbished aircraft as primary trainers, and that may serve as an effective tipping point both for generating demand and demonstrating the potential market for diesel STCs for other lower-cost/older aircraft. We can only hope…

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A flight simulator primer

I had originally planned to write more about engines this week, but reality— or simulated reality— has intruded, and this week I’m going to talk about flight simulators.

For your convenience, I’ll skip the part of this post where I would wax lyrical about how cool it was the first time I played Sublogic’s old Flight Simulator on an Apple II. It was cool but it wasn’t much of a simulator experience. Fast forward from the mid-80s to today and the state of the art in PC-based simulators is X-Plane, an almost infinitely customizable simulator that can handle aircraft from gliders up to the Space Shuttle. (The demo video on their web site is well worth a look to see some of what can be done with suitable hardware). There are hundreds of different airplane types available, including military, general aviation, biz jets, and big iron such as the Boeing 7×7 line. Each aircraft has its own customized flight model and appearance, so what you see can be as realistic as the designer of that model feels like building in (and as realistic as your graphics hardware can support). Here’s a fair example of what the sim looks like on my setup:

Cherokee Six approach into KAEX

Daylight approach to runway 32 at Alexandria International Airport

This is a daylight approach (created by checking the box that says “use the current date, time, and weather”) to runway 32 at Alexandria International. You can see the runways, taxiways, other airport stuff, ground features, and the Red River. The more powerful your computer, the more graphical features you can turn on. Since I am running on a 3-year-old MacBook Pro, I have the detail level set to “medium” but perhaps one day I’ll have enough hardware to turn up some of the visual fidelity knobs.

However, visual fidelity isn’t why I wanted a simulator. There are people, including many non-pilots, who like to hop in the sim and pretend that they are airline pilots, fighter pilots, or whatever. I wanted one as a means to practice instrument flying, which often involves being in conditions where you can’t see a darn thing outside. For example, right now the weather at KMGY (Dayton-Wright Brothers) is 1.5 miles visibility, an overcast layer at 300 feet, and light snow. Here’s what the approach to runway 2 there looks like right now; It doesn’t take much GPU horsepower to draw solid gray, as you can see:

On final for rwy 2 at KMGY

Same daylight, different weather, this time at KMGY

So why bother? If you take a look at the approach plate for the GPS approach to runway 18R at Huntsville, you’ll see that there are specific lateral and vertical points to hit: inbound on the approach, you fly to the JASEX intersection, and you cannot arrive there below 3000’. From there, you fly a course of 182° to GETEC, where you arrive at 2500’, and so on. Understanding where you need to be during the approach, and then putting the airplane in that position, is the key to a safe arrival. Practicing the skill of mentally visualizing your aircraft position and orientation relative to the approach layout, then controlling the aircraft as needed, is really valuable, and in a simulator you can repeat it as often as necessary without delay, even pausing it when needed. For that reason, the FAA has allowed you to log up to 20 hours of simulator time as part of the requirements for an instrument rating, provided you spend that time with an instructor and are using an approved simulator. (They recently announced that they will only allow 10 hours of time to count, effective February 3, but the AOPA and other groups are fighting that proposed rule change.)

Without going into all the boring details, suffice it to say that there are many different gadgets to practice your flying with, from the massive, super-high-fidelity simulators used by airlines to the home-brew rig I’m using, with a $50 piece of software and another $200 in controllers, all running on a commodity laptop. This article from IFR Refresher explains the difference nicely: a simulator is a full-size replica of a specific type of aircraft cockpit, with motion and high visual fidelity. Training devices (TDs) don’t have to have motion, and there are several subtypes, including PC-based devices (PCATDs) and basic and advanced training devices (BATDs and AATDs, respectively).

For your simulator practice time to be loggable, you need a PCATD, BATD (such as this Redbird TD or FlyThisSim TouchTrainer), or AATD. My slapped-together rig is not FAA-certified as any of these, so I can’t log the practice time, and therefore it doesn’t count towards the requirements for my rating. However, being able to practice approaches before I fly them is invaluable, and I plan to make heavy use of the ability to do so. To help with that, I’ll probably spring for the FlyThisSim analog Cessna pack, which includes higher-fidelity models for several of the aircraft I normally fly. In particular, the pack includes the Garmin G430 and G530 GPS systems, which are very useful when flying approaches since they give you a moving-map rendition of your location and position and they can be coupled to the autopilot so that the GPS provides lateral guidance (though the airplanes I fly don’t have vertical coupling so the pilot still has to control altitude). Coupled with judicious use of the expensive and fancy Redbird FMX AATD at Wings of Eagles, this should help me (eventually) master the complex process of safely flying an IFR approach.

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On piston aircraft engines, part 1

If you’ve noticed, car manufacturers often brag on the technology or fuel efficiency of their engines. If you recognize phrases like “fuel-injected,” “variable valve timing,”  “double overhead cam,” or “turbocharged,” then the automotive industry’s marketing has succeeded— even if you don’t know what those things are you probably think of them as desirable.

Now forget most of that. The basic design of most aircraft piston engines are stuck solidly in the 1930s.

Take, for example, the 1975 Cessna 182P I often fly, N1298M. Its engine is a Continental O-470-U variant. No electronic ignition. No fuel injection. It weighs 390 pounds, makes 230 horsepower, and costs about $21,000 to overhaul (more if you replace your timed-out engine with a remanufactured or factory-new one).

Yep, that’s right. The engine in that airplane costs as much as many cars do, and yet from an efficiency perspective it’s terrible— 470 cubic inches to make only 230 horsepower! (In fairness, the O-470 is capable of more; in the 182 it’s derated to 230hp). By comparison, the Nissan Altima— hardly a supercar— has a 213 cubic-inch engine (well, 3.5L, really) that makes 270hp and can be completely replaced for about five grand. Now, in fairness, the Nissan engine is a much newer design. Maybe a better comparison is the engine from a 1975 Corvette, which made 205hp from 350 cubic inches and weighed about 325lbs. I won’t hazard a guess at the original cost, but overhauling a small-block 350 would cost maybe $1500 in parts today.

Behold the mighty O-470

Newer aircraft of course have somewhat more modern engines. For example, a 2012 Cessna 182 (identical in performance to the 1975 model I normally fly) uses a Lycoming IO-540-AB1A5 engine that still makes 230hp, but features fuel injection and a somewhat more modern design than the O-470. An overhaul for this engine will run you about $24K, while a brand-new one lists for just under $77K. (In 2013, Cessna stopped selling the piston 182 and moved to a new diesel engine, a topic I’ll have more to say about in part 2.) Another example: the Cirrus SR22G5, the latest version of the best-selling piston single, runs a fuel-injected Continental IO-550N that, apart from being fuel-injected, is still just as noisy, heavy, inefficient, and expensive as its predecessors.

Besides the expense, these engines require much more management than you might think. In flight, whether your engine is fuel-injected or carburated, you have to adjust the fuel-air mixture as you change altitude. You must also monitor the cylinder head temperatures (CHTs), and in some aircraft you have to adjust cowl flaps or other cooling devices. When was the last time you had to do that in your car? You don’t; in pretty much every car built since the late 1970s, a computer takes care of adjusting spark timing, mixture, and a number of other parameters to get the best performance or economy from the engine. All you do is press the accelerator. In a piston airplane, that’s a different story (something I’ll also talk more about in part 2).

The reasons for this sad state are many and complex, but the biggest two are easy to describe succinctly: reliability and cost.

Despite the fact that these engines use ancient technology, they are superbly reliable because their basic design is so mature. Engine and airframe manufacturers have 50+ years of data about their behavior, and when the possible consequences of an engine failure escalate from “pull over and call a tow truck” to “fall screaming out of the sky and die in a fireball,” you can see why that reliability is so desirable.

Cost is a multifaceted factor. First, it is exceptionally expensive to certify anything for aviation use. The FAA has a demanding and complex set of rules (known as “part 23”), backed by a fairly arbitrary process, for certifying things such as engines, propellers, and avionics. It’s prohibitively expensive for most new entrants to get a new engine and airframe combination certified. Manufacturers such as Cessna and Piper have little incentive to spend millions of dollars certifying new engine designs for their 50+-year-old airframe designs. Second, these engines are produced in very low volumes by modern manufacturing standards. In a really, really good year, Lycoming or Continental might sell a number of new engines measured in the low thousands (perhaps more, but it’s certainly fewer than 10K units/year). In that volume, it’s hard to see much improvement from scale, and given that these engines are largely hand-built, this is unlikely to change.

I haven’t touched on another drawback, one which really requires its own post: piston engines normally run on leaded fuel. This has several related consequences: economic (it’s more expensive because it’s a lower-volume product), environmental (duh), political (various satraps in California have tried several times to ban or legislate leaded aviation fuel out of existence), and technical. Some engines, such as the ones for the 182, can be made to run on ordinary auto gas (known as mogas), but higher-compression engines in larger airplanes need the lead to prevent pre-detonation, so we’re stuck with it for now.

Like the weather, the state of engine tech in general aviation is often discussed but there is little individual pilots and owners can do about it. Manufacturers, though, have a variety of tricks up their sleeve, which I’ll discuss in part 2.

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The instrument written exam

As described in FAR 61.65, the FAA requires three categories of things to earn an instrument rating: you have to meet the experience requirements (which includes things like being proficient in English and convincing your instructor to sign you off), you have to pass the practical test, and you have to pass the written exam. I haven’t had much opportunity to fly with my instructor lately, so I’ve been focusing on studying for the written exam, which covers weather, IFR procedures, regulations, how to read IFR charts, and all sorts of other goodies.

NewImage

The picture above shows a portion of the IFR low chart surrounding David Wayne Hooks Airport in Houston. Yes, the FAA really expects you to know what all that stuff means! Every little symbol and text block has its own particular meaning: minimum en-route altitudes, crossing restrictions, distances, and lots of other things are all encoded into the symbology, and there is a completely different visual language used for diagramming instrument approaches. That’s a shorthand way of saying that there’s a lot of bookwork required to be ready for the test. I’ve been using the Sporty’s IFR course, which is pretty good, along with their test-prep app. I’m re-reading Taylor’s Instrument Flying and working my way through a couple of other books I have. Finally, I am considering taking one of the weekend accelerated ground schools offered by companies such as Aviation Seminars and Rick Yandle, but that requires at least one full weekend of time, plus several hundred dollars— money and time I could be using to fly instead.

Now, time to hit the books again…

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My introduction to night instrument flying

There’s something particularly special about flying at night. As the air cools, it tends to calm, and on a clear night the visibility is stunning.

Sadly, I hadn’t flown at night since leaving California. After moving here, I ran afoul of RAFA’s requirement for night checkouts. See, the FAA has its own set of requirements about what’s known as “night currency.” In order to legally fly with passengers at night, you must have completed at least 3 takeoffs and landings at night during the preceding 90 days. On top of that RAFA requires that you have a RAFA instructor check your night flying technique out. This is immensely complicated by the fact that the Redstone Arsenal airfield currently doesn’t have any working lights, so getting checked out requires moving your plane to Huntsville while it’s light, then putting it back the next day. I just hadn’t been able to get an instructor and an airplane together at the same time, so my FAA currency had lapsed too.

Luckily last Friday I was able to solve that problem. Caroline, one of the RAFA instructors, had posted a picture on Facebook of a night flight she did with a student, and I commented on it, so she responded and told me to let her know when I wanted to fly at night. Challenge accepted! I booked the trusty club 182 for the evening, but it was down with a transponder failure, so I ended up in a 172 with Caroline and her friend Norma, who came along just for fun. Rather than a typical night requalification— 3 circuits around the traffic pattern— we decided to get some instrument practice. After taking off from Huntsville, I put on the foggles and flew us to Cullman,where I did a not-terrible job of flying the GPS approach to runway 20. (More on the various types of approaches and what they mean in a future post). Then I flew us back to Huntsville, where I flew the instrument landing system (ILS) approach to runway 36R. That was much more challenging, I thought, in part because we were getting radar vectors from the controller (a fancy way of saying that he was assigning us headings to fly to line us up with the approach course). After my approach, Caroline flew one while I acted as safety pilot, then I flew another approach and we called it a night (well, except for an excellent dinner, but that’s not really aviation-related).

Nightflight

Norma took this picture upon landing on 36R at Huntsville

Flying instrument approaches at night is no different than flying them during the day: the airplane doesn’t know it’s night, and you’re either flying in clouds or using a view-limiting device that keeps you from seeing outside in any event, so you stay focused on the instruments and fly the approach. Despite the fact that there shouldn’t be a difference, I really enjoyed the night approaches and look forward to doing it again… and again and again, since getting really good at instrument landings is kinda the whole point of getting your instrument rating.

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First real instrument lesson

I took the boys down to Tuscaloosa last weekend to visit David. The weather was fine, and we had a lovely visit, but it ran a bit long, and then I couldn’t get the plane started. It’s finicky, but it was my fault, not the plane’s. Then I wouldn’t have been able to get back to Redstone before dark, and I’m not night current, so we ended up leaving the plane and driving home (a process made much harder by the fact that it’s impossible to rent a rental car after 6pm in Tuscaloosa on a Sunday). The next day I needed to go back down to pick up the airplane, so I called my instructor to see if he wanted to fly me down there. The flight turned into an instrument training lesson, which was exactly what I was hoping for.

Weather at Redstone on departure was fair: ceilings were about 3500’ with visibility of 4 miles. It started raining just as I was finishing the preflight. John had filed an IFR flight plan direct to Tuscaloosa at 5000’, which turned out to be ideal for getting me some actual instrument time, including flying through rain. This turned out to be a nonissue because when you’re only using your cockpit instruments for navigation, not being able to see because of rain doesn’t pose a probem.

I say “actual” because you can log both simulated instrument time (in which you wear a view-limiting device such as this) or actual time. “Actual” in this context means you’re flying completely on instruments, without visual reference to the ground. In our case, that meant we were flying through a layer of clouds for a total of nearly 50 minutes. That meant that I had to control the airplane’s altitude, attitude, and course using only the instruments in the cockpit. All pilots are required to receive training on this, and to demonstrate proficiency in doing it, as part of the initial training process, but doing it in actual is quite a different matter. It’s very demanding work; you have to keep a consistent scan pattern on your instruments to make sure you’re holding course and altitude.

One key difference is that the best way to do this is to use predetermined engine settings: at a certain RPM and manifold pressure at a given altitude, you can predict how fast the plane will go and to make it climb or descend at a predictable rate, you know how much power to add or remove. Flying on an instrument flight plan often involves reaching very specific altitudes at specific points in space, i.e. you may be told to cross a fix at a given altitude, and you need to figure out how to make that happen.

I did reasonably well; I didn’t have any trouble maintaining my altitude, and my heading control was generally good except for a couple of minor excursions when I got over-focused on altitude or airspeed. You really have to divide your attention between all of the instruments to maintain a consistent flight path, and that’s very much a learned (and perishable) skill.

We made it safely to Tuscaloosa, landed, and I got the Arrow started. I took off first, flying VFR back to Huntsville at 3500’. In the Arrow, I was averaging about 145kts groundspeed on the return, and the flight, which took place between a high layer of solid overcast and a lower layer of broken clouds, was quite nice.

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between the layers en route TCL-HSV

After a smooth and uneventful flight, and a decent landing, I logged 0.2 simulated instrument, 0.8 actual, 0.2 VFR for the leg down, plus another 1.0 for the return VFR flight. I’m looking forward to more instrument time… make mine actual!

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My new favorite word: “unable”

Sometimes one word can speak volumes. This is especially true when there’s a well-defined and mutually understood vocabulary that all parties in a conversation are using– which is exactly what happens when you talk on the radio with an air traffic controller. Although it often sounds bizarre to outsiders, the back-and-forth between pilot and controller can be incredibly information-rich. The FAA has a standard glossary that pilots and controllers are supposed to use, and you can’t go far wrong by sticking with it. Many of the terms in the glossary compress a great deal of meaning into a few syllables, which is important when you’re busy– which, as either a pilot or controller, you will be!

For example, the controller at a busy training airport such as Palo Alto (which usually has between 500-700 takeoffs/landings per day, a lot for a small airport with a 2500′ runway) could say “One Tango Golf, there’s a 172 on final. If you go right now, then you can take off on runway 31″, or he can say “One Tango Golf, landing traffic, expedite, cleared for take off, 31″. Now consider the workload of a pilot flying into an airport like Atlanta or Dallas, or a controller in the tower cab at Chicago-O’Hare or Newark, and you see why brevity is so important.

My favorite of all these expressions is simple: “unable”. The glossary defines it thus:

Indicates inability to comply with a specific instruction, request, or clearance.

Depending on how you use it, it can mean “I won’t do that” or “I can’t do that.” Rather than provide a long explanation, all you have to say is “unable.” Suppose I’ve filed a route from point A to point B and the controller wants to have me deviate to point C, and I happen to be low on fuel? “Unable.” Want me to turn towards an area of built-up clouds? “Unable.” Because the pilot in command has ultimate responsibility for the safety of flight, as PIC you have unlimited authority to accept, or reject, controller requests or instructions– with the very significant caveat that you may be required to account for doing so. If the controller tells me to sidestep to a parallel runway on approach, and I don’t, and I cause an accident, having said “unable” isn’t going to get me out of trouble.

The magic word works both ways, of course: when you ask a controller for something (“Niner Eight Mike, request lower” to get a lower altitude, for example) the controller can merely say “Unable” and that’s it. Of course, whoever receives the U-word can always ask for something different, or explain why they want whatever it is.

Now I just need to brief the people I talk to most frequently so they know what the word means to. “Dad, can you take me to the mall?” “Unable.”

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Speed, time, and cost

Recently I had the opportunity to fly down to Louisiana to see my mom, grandmother, and uncles. This was an easy trip: straight-line, it’s 411 miles from airport to airport. It took me 3:12 to get down there and 3:00 to get back. Why the difference? In a word, wind. In the northern hemisphere (and, more particularly, in the US, since that’s where I’m flying), prevailing winds tend to follow predictable patterns: west-to-east for much of the country, and (in general) onshore in coastal areas. The strength and direction of winds aloft vary, of course. For example, the definition of a frontal boundary (the line demarcating where a cold or warm front actually starts or ends) is an area where the wind suddenly changes direction and speed. It’s generally true that you’ll face headwinds when flying from east to west and tailwinds when flying from west to east, but the strength and direction of the winds can change quite a bit as you move across different types of terrain, through different weather systems, and so on.

 

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astute readers can figure out exactly where I was when this picture was taken

In the picture above, the “GS” number in the lower right shows that I had a groundspeed of 148 knots. Since one knot is 1.14 statute miles/hour, that’s just over 170mph. That seems pretty good, considering that it’s more than double the speed limit on any of the roads that link Huntsville and Alexandria (and triple, or more, the speed limit for the West Monroe-Alexandria leg). The 128kts average groundspeed I had going westbound still equates to 147mph. Although a 20-knot difference is nothing to sneeze at, the practical impact is that it saved me… exactly 12 minutes, mostly because the winds kept changing.

That brings up the question of fuel usage. Every powered airplane has a set of performance charts that show you, for a given altitude and power setting, how fast you can go in still air (and remember, airspeed isn’t the same as groundspeed; that’s a topic for another post) and how much fuel you’ll burn while doing so. Book fuel burn for the Cessna 182P is between 12 and 14 gallons per hour, depending on your altitude and power setting. Most rental aircraft are rented “wet”; that is, the hourly rental rate includes gas and oil. In a rental, you therefore have an incentive to configure the engine for best speed even if you burn a couple more gph. When it’s your airplane (or when it’s a “dry” rental) you’re paying for the fuel, so you get to choose: would you rather burn more gph or get there a little later?

The correct answer is “it depends.” Aviation gasoline costs anywhere from $5 to $7/gallon in the US. (Why so much? Why the variance? Those are topics for another post too.) Suppose I can cruise at 130kts for 12gph, or 150kts for 15gph. That extra speed is going to cost me, let’s say, $18/hour. For a 411nm trip, that means I can get there in about 3 hours 9 minutes for just under 38 gallons (so, call it $228). On the other hand, at 150kts I could get there in only 2 hours 44 minutes, but it would cost me 41 gallons of fuel, or $246. In my case, since I was renting a plane, I went pedal to the metal, adjusting the engine for max speed rather than best fuel efficiency.

Now, this is an oversimplification, of course. It ignores the time spent climbing and descending (you burn more fuel in the climb, and less in a descent, but not enough to equal what you burned climbing), it assumes that ATC doesn’t reroute you anyplace inconvenient, and so on; it’s a good enough estimate for our purposes.

Let’s compare, now, the cost/mile of flying versus driving. I drive a 2005 Nissan Altima that gets 30mpg on the highway. Bing Maps says the fastest road route is 514 statute miles. So, that’ll cost me about $60 in gas, as opposed to $384 for the airplane rental. I’m leaving out all the other fixed and variable costs of the car; if I wanted this to be more precise I’d compare the cost of driving a rental car from here to there, but who would do that if they didn’t have to? Anyway, flying is considerably more expensive until you figure the time savings. Bing calls this an 8-hour trip, assuming no stops for fuel, food, or bathroom breaks. I can make it in a hair over 3 in the plane, though I have to take my own food. As with the car, that price stays the same whether I fly solo or with passengers (or cargo, such as the excellent banana pudding I brought back– thanks, Mom!)

Clearly I could come up with a business rationale that values my time at what Dell bills customers for it, or what I bill for it on standalone projects, but the right way to think about it, I think, is that the time I gain is priceless: being able to get to see family and friends, or attend important events, or just get out of town for a trip, is important, and the airplane gives me the flexibility to go farther, faster, more often than I could in a car, for considerably less money (usually) than it would take to fly commercial.

For another time: does it make sense to spend more money to rent or buy a faster airplane? It depends.

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The Perrysburg Express

The boys and I had been discussing where we should go on vacation. As usual, they wanted to go someplace exotic, like on a cruise. I counteroffered with a trip to our former home in Perrysburg, reasoning that it was an easy flight and that they’d like to visit friends. It turned out to be a great trip and a good example of the utility of personal aviation. The plan was for David, Tom, and I to fly to Ohio, where Matt would join us, then we’d all fly back together.

We left on a Sunday mid afternoon, loaded up our rental 182 with full fuel and our bags, and departed HUA for Bowling Green, Kentucky, 158nm to the north. There were some rainstorms moving from west to east near Nashville, so we had to dodge them a bit, but between guidance from ATC and the onboard weather data provided by my Stratus/Foreflight combination, that was no problem. It’s worth pointing out that the value of datalink weather in the cockpit is not for real-time storm avoidance. It’s to see where storms were the last time the weather data was updated and to plan routes so that you stay well away from potential trouble spots.

Anyway, the flight to KBWG was uneventful; when we landed, we called a taxi to take us to the National Corvette Museum, which I hadn’t previously visited. I think it’s fair to say that my jaw was at least partially agape the entire time. There are some spectacular cars there, and their memorabilia collection is excellent. Our lunch at the museum cafe wasn’t bad either. In fact, my only gripe with the entire stop was the taxi service; if you plan a trip through the Bowling Green airport be forewarned that taxis there are hard to come by and (at least for the two we had) decrepit nearly to the point of unsafeness.

From Bowling Green, our route of flight took us another 340nm to the northeast to the Wood County airport (1G0), coincidentally located in Bowling Green. As with many other county-owned airports, the Wood County airport is clean, modern, small, and lightly used, although Bowling Green State University has a flying club there and there’s a small FBO on the field. By the time we arrived, the building had closed but thankfully the vending and restroom areas are open so we could clean up a bit. Our friends Matt and Anita were kind enough to come get us, since there’s no good way to get a rental car in Bowling Green, Ohio on a Sunday evening; we had a great visit on the way to the hotel, the first of several.

The trip itself was marvelous. We went to a Mud Hens game, ate at all our favorite restaurants (yay for Mr. Freeze!), and saw many of our friends. I was shocked to see how much the “little” kids I used to teach in Sunday school had grown, and likewise I could tell that my adult friend were surprised to see David, Tom, and Matt in their 2013 editions. Perrysburg and the surrounding area didn’t seem to have changed that much. In fact, when we visited Imagination Station, the former COSI, it was surprising how little it had changed.

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take me out to the ball game… (not shown: chili dogs, scoreboard showing Mud Hens’ loss)

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just because I love sunflowers– this was taken next to the parking garage across the street from the science museum

On the trip back, we had too much stuff– Matt had brought 2 weeks worth of luggage with him back from Vermont, and we were already close to the weight limit on the 182, so we shipped some bags back via UPS. The 182 is a forgiving airplane but that’s no excuse for overloading it or loading it outside its acceptable center of gravity (CG) range, as difficult as that might be to do. For trips with all four of us, it looks like we’ll need a bigger plane, or to pack lighter.

On our return flight we planned a fuel step at the Springfield-Lebanon airport in Kentucky. As with 1G0, this airport seemed scarcely used. The very friendly attendant gave us the keys to a crew car and said “oh, I’ll be gone by the time y’all get back from dinner, so just leave the keys here on the counter”. True to her word, when we returned from an excellent lunch at Mordecai’s, she was gone, so we parked the car, fueled the plane, and departed again for the 220nm leg back to Redstone. Here’s how the flight went on the way back:

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see, naps do make the trip go faster

As a pilot and a father, that’s exactly what I’m aiming for: to make flights with my family so routine and uneventful that the kids fall asleep, get bored, and even quarrel a bit, just as they would in the car.. with the added bonus that a trip that would have taken 8+ hours each way in the car took less than half that. That’s one of the best parts of personal aviation: it’s a time machine, enabling you to go places in less time and thus making trips feasible that would otherwise be impossible. What’s not to love?

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Thursday trivia #96

  • Apparently people with lots of self-control are happier. Makes perfect sense to me.
  • Butterscotch pudding popsicles? Yes please.
  • Or maybe key lime pie popsicles would be better.
  • I need to do a longer post on my progress so far with the coached fitness program I started a couple of weeks ago. So far, however, I am noticeably stronger (my best deadlift is now 245!), with better muscle definition. Despite eating like a horse on workout days, I’ve lost about 8 pounds so far.
  • Apropos of fitness: I loooove Fitocracy. What a great community. On the other hand, my local gym (1Fit) is almost always deserted; this is good for lifting, but not so good for community purposes.
  • I am starting transition training to the 182RG, meanwhile looking around for a weekend prep course for my instrument written. I’ve also decided to write a book (a short one, I hope) about the process of getting an instrument rating. It’s going to be self-published through Amazon. Stay tuned.

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Time flies…

I just got back from a great flying trip from Huntsville to Perrysburg, Ohio (more on that in a later post today if I have time). In reviewing my logs, I was shocked to see that I have as much pilot-in-command (PIC) time in the Cessna 182 that I’ve been flying here in Huntsville as I do in the Cessna 172s I was flying in Palo Alto, Pensacola, and Huntsville– just over 50 hours in each. I just went over the 100-hour PIC mark, which means that by any standard I am still a novice; at the same time I am delighted to see the rate at which I’ve been accruing time, experience, photos, and memories.

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