Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The best advice often comes in the fewest words, Part 1: Doing it right


"Never let this situation develop."

Due to the pointless/counterproductive changes in the requirements for the Airline Transport Pilot certificate that go into effect on August 1st, I'm going to be taking my ATP multi-engine checkride in July. I already have it scheduled with Tom Brady (no, the other one) at Traverse Air, and I've started studying ahead for the oral part.

I got my commercial multi-engine with him several years ago as one of those "learn to fly a twin in a weekend" courses. I was skeptical that it would be anything more than a checkride cram course, but he was recommended by someone who had done his course earlier, so I gave it a shot. I was very surprised at how good a job he did in so little time. I really didn't think it was possible, but now that I've got almost 10 times as many hours as I did back then, and now that I've been an instructor myself for a few years, I can see and understand how he can do it so well. Like most highly effective people (or good landings), it's all about the approach.

As part of the course, he emails you the POH for the Apache you'll be training in. At the end is a list of questions and answers to study to aid in preparation for the oral. When I came across the following one, I was impressed:

Q: What steps must be taken if an engine failure occurs during flight below Vmc?
A: Never let this situation develop. [emphasis mine]

The red line above the word "this" marks Vmc.

He goes on to finish the answer with, "The only recovery is to reduce power on both engines, lower the nose, [and accelerate to an] airspeed faster than Vmc in order to maintain aircraft control."

Sometimes (and probably most of the time, actually), when a person gives a long, complicated answer to something, it's because they don't understand the answer themselves so they bury you in a bunch of technical gobbledygook and hope you'll be too intimidated to ask anything else. As the saying goes, if you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, then baffle 'em with bullcrap.

For example, the answer to that question above could go something along the lines of "Due of the adverse effects of asymmetric thrust, especially pronounced in a failure of the critical engine due to P-factor (and other elements) being more heavily misaligned in reference to the longitudinal axis of the aircraft, combined with a reduced effectiveness of the control surfaces in low-airspeed regimes, the pilot must reduce power to reduce the deleterious influence of unbalanced thrust as part of an effort to regain directional control."

That is 100% technically correct and 100% totally useless.

Instead, I would just say (as Tom did above), "Don't do that."


"Because you'll die."

"But what if I do?"

"Then cut the throttles, push the nose down, and pray you have enough altitude to cash in for the airspeed you should have kept the whole time."

This advice may seem like the old joke about the person who goes to the doctor and says, "Doc, it hurts when I do this!" and the doctor replies, "Then don't do that." However, it's actually much deeper than that. I would sum it up as, "You don't have to recover from what you don't get yourself into."

There is another example of this no-nonsense, full common sense approach a little further down:

Q: How important is the best rate of climb, single engine (Vyse)?
A: It is the most important thing for the airplane.

Indeed it is, followed closely by Vmc. Both of them are so important that multi-engine aircraft have two markings on their airspeed indicators that single engine aircraft don't: a red radial line marking Vmc (this is not the red radial line that marks Vne—you can see Vmc's redline right above the word "this" in the first illustration above) and a blue radial line marking Vyse. That's why you'll hear the word "blueline" a lot when getting your multi-engine rating, usually preceded by the words "maintain" or "don't go below". It's so important it gets its own piece of jargon and a splash of paint.

Just like life, aviation is all about priorities. Priority #1 is to fly the airplane. Aviate. If you don't let a situation develop, you don't have to recover from it.

This is just another example of how when you learn to fly, you learn to live. In the second part, I'll give you an example of how not to do things.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Just because your engine dies doesn't mean you have to.

Among people who don't fly, there is a misconception that the only thing keeping an aircraft in the air is the engine. In reality, the plane stays in the air because of the wings, and all the engine really does is keep it there longer than it would have without an engine.

(Of course, glider pilots would argue that the engine doesn't even do that, since they have no engine and they routinely fly over 1000 miles in competitive events, which is hundreds of miles more range than the typical small Cessna/Piper/Beech.)

I created a short video a little while back to demonstrate this in action by turning off the engine completely in a simulated Cessna 172 over 8 miles from an airport and gliding it in the rest of the way:

As part of learning to fly, you learned (or will learn) your ABCs: Airspeed to best glide, Best field, Communicate, Checklist. Notice that the very first step is going to "best glide" airspeed, not "fall like a brick" airspeed. That's because engine or no engine, you are still flying the airplane! If you keep flying it, it will keep on flying for you.

If you don't believe me, there are two famous real-life airline events that did just that, but instead of gliding a measly 8 miles they both went over 70 miles in quiet comfort: Air Canada Flight 143 (probably better known as the "Gimli Glider") and Air Transat Flight 236. There was that little "Miracle on the Hudson" thing (which no one seems to call US Airways Flight 1549) back in 2009, too.

If you know someone who is afraid to fly because they "don't trust small planes", show them this post (or the video) and see if that doesn't change their mind a bit. While you're there, think about subscribing to my Larry the Flying Guy channel, too:

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A collision that won't raise your insurance rates

Googie precedes Google by 50 years, but you can combine the two and use Google to search for Googie. That's a neat trick, but what does that have to do with aviation?

Three things: the movement itself was inspired by the new Jet Age, the Theme Building (or "flying saucer") at LAX and the TWA Flight Center at JFK are oft-cited examples of Googie architecture, and the FAA's AC 00-6A, Aviation Weather, which you will need to become friends with as part of your ground study, is marinaded in hand-drawn examples of Mid-Century Modern art, right down to the cover:

State of the 1975 art. And that's the newest edition.
In case the title didn't give it away, Aviation Weather tells you what it's about right from the beginning:

Let's jump almost 40 years from 1975 to March 11, 2014, which is when I took this picture from the ramp at Lorain County Regional Airport:

As usual, you can click to embiggen.
There are two rows of undulating clouds at almost a right angle. The darker ones on the left go from the upper left and head toward the lower right, and the ones on the right go from the lower left and head toward the upper right. The left side is the lower layer of clouds and the ones on the right are higher (because they're being lifted by that lower layer, but we'll get more into that in a little bit).

Those two rows are a bit hard to see, so here are some psychedelically-enhanced versions (actually, just a moderately-solarizing filter in showFoto) that might help you see them a little better:

What would cause such an odd-looking sky? If you said, "Hey, I bet Aviation Weather would have the answer!" you'd be right. In fact, it has a whole chapter of answers:

Any time an Eskimo collides with a hula girl playing a ukulele, you know it's about to get real.

On this particular day, we had a stationary front hanging around over top of us, which was making for some (finally) warmish weather. Unfortunately, there was a cold front over Lake Superior heading our way to put out that fire, as this 7:00 a.m. chart shows:

That chart was from 7:00 a.m., and I took my picture at after 5:00 p.m., so that cold front had plenty of time to keep chugging toward Lake Erie. It arrived at around 4:00 p.m., as this data from Weather Underground for that day shows:

I drew a blue line across them at the time that picture was taken. From the top chart, you can see that the temperature was falling quickly, and from the bottom one you can see that the wind had shifted direction quite dramatically. That is the result of the cold front having arrived. As Aviation Weather puts it:

Temperature is one of the most easily recognized discontinuities across a front. At the surface, the passage of a front usually causes noticeable temperature change...

Wind always changes across a front. Wind discontinuity may be in direction, in speed, or in both. Be alert for a wind shift when flying in the vicinity of a frontal surface; if the wind shift catches you unaware it can get you off course or even lost in a short time.

We certainly got a "noticeable temperature change" and a change in wind direction, didn't we? That means we can be sure a cold front has passed. But what does that have to do with a picture of two cloud layers going two different directions?

If you said, "Hey, I bet he's going to put in another diagram from Aviation Weather!" you'd be right:

Figure 59 from the FAA's gloriously public-domain weather/art treatise.
The top half shows that while that cold front was passing through, it lifted the layer of warmer air that had been at the surface (attempting nobly yet vainly to thaw the cheeks of Clevelanders). That explains why there are two distinct cloud layers. The bottom half shows that the winds in the cold front are distinctly different from those in the warm front, so when it came through, the rows in the cloud layers shifted as well.

And that is how the pretty pictures from Aviation Weather combine to explain a pretty picture taken on a cell phone 40 years later. Do you have any weather pictures you'd like to share?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Coming back to life

A few days ago, AOPA announced a "rusty pilots" initiative to help bring people who haven't flown in years back into the ranks of active pilots. This is a great idea, and I certainly hope it succeeds. After all, one of the hardest things about being a pilot is becoming a pilot, so it's a lot harder to add to the pilot community by creating new pilots from scratch than it is to "resurrect" lapsed pilots.

Notice I didn't say "former pilots". That's because there is no such thing as a former pilot: once you have a license, it's good forever. However, you can't exercise the privileges of that license without a flight review every two years. But what happens if you don't?

Here's what doesn't happen if you don't fly for two or more years:

  • You don't have to take a long, formal ground school again.
  • You don't have to take your written exam again.
  • You don't have to take your checkride again.
  • You don't have to fly a certain number of hours (like the 40 required for your original license).
  • You don't have to fill out FAA paperwork.

Here's what you do have to do:
  • You have to be able to act as PIC (pilot in command) again

Simple, right?

Actually, it is. The AOPA article says that it will take about 1 hour for every year you've been out of the cockpit. I'd never heard it stated that way, but that's actually pretty close to what my own experience bringing pilots "back to life" has shown me to be the case in general. It tends to level off at about 12-15 hours even if it has been longer than 12-15 years, though.

That's the flying side of how long it will take. How about the knowledge side? Actually, that's usually the easier part for me. That's because in general, once people get bit by the flying bug again, they usually tend to do the reading on their own. Planes still fly on the same basic principles, so most of what has changed is the avionics, airspace, and regulations. Here's a rough breakdown of what might be new to you depending on how long you've been inactive:

Less than 5 years:

  • Almost nothing important. Depending on where you live, the airspace may look a little different, but if it has, your instructor will definitely make sure you know.

5-10 years:

  • You may or may not have flown using a GPS, especially if you're closer to 10 years than 5. Ten years ago the average rental aircraft was as likely to not have a GPS as it was to have one. Nowadays it's hard to find one without at least a basic, handheld unit like a Garmin 296-696.
  • If you live in the Washington, D.C. area, you may not be aware of the changes in the SFRA (Special Flight Rules Area) since 9/11. After that day, the rules got totally ridiculous, then shrunk a little bit to the present mostly-ridiculous level. You'll need to take an online course just to be able to fly in that area.
  • Other types of new airspace and/or changed borders of prior airspace. This is the sort of thing that having an instructor who is knowledgeable about your specific area is perfect for. We fly in it everyday, so when something changes, we know about it.
  • Glass cockpits are more commonplace than they used to be. You're more likely to see one now than 10 years ago, but unless you're flying a newer aircraft, you might not see one. There aren't a whole lot of people who spend the money to completely retrofit an old steam panel to glass, especially since doing so can cost 100%-500% (or even more) of the aircraft's value.
  • You have to have your old paper license replaced with a plastic, credit-card sized one. Fortunately, that's extremely easy to do and costs only $2.

10-20 years:

  • You've almost definitely never seen GPS. That's a good thing for you in a way, because it means you'll be that much happier when you see just how much easier it is compared to VORs and NDBs, both of which are going away. The thick VOR network is going to be pared down to the minumum necessary to serve as a backup to GPS. NDBs have been officially declared obsolete and are not being fixed when they break, so they are fading slowly as the equipment decays.
  • If you are one of the rare pilots that flew with a LORAN system, you'll be used to GPS. However, GPS is way more accurate and reliable. And LORAN is also officially obsolete.
  • You probably flew during the transition from TCAs, ARSAs, CZs, etc. to the current airspace system, which has Class A, B, C, D, E, and G. Although there were some structural changes as well, most of the "Class x" airspace has an analogous former name (like Class B for TCA, for example).

20 years or more:

  • Everything above, plus you're probably the most common type of returning flyer! The majority of "re"lapsed pilots I've trained have a gap of 20-25 years, which uncoincidentally is almost exactly how long it takes to have kids and then have them grow up and move out so you can have your time and money back.

I handle returning pilots just like a flight review. Why? Because that's exactly what it is. Your license is still just as valid as it ever was, but you have to have a flight review to continue to exercise the privileges of the certificate. Every instructor is different, but this is how I do things:
  1. I sit down with you and learn about the kind of flying you used to do and plan to do once you're active again.
  2. We get in the air and do some maneuvers like you're used to. I place a heavy emphasis on slow flight and stall recognition to reawaken your butt feel and stick and rudder senses. If you didn't have those senses before, you will by the time I'm done with you.
  3. We do as much pattern work as necessary. It may start off rough, but after a while, it will all click again. If you grease the first one, congratulate yourself on your luck and don't take your arm off the yoke to pat yourself on the back.
  4. We chair-fly a cross country, with extra attention paid to those airspace details that may have changed or may be entirely new to you. Depending on how long it has been and whether or not you are already familiar with the GPS, we may fly an actual cross country, too.
Depending on how many hours you had before you took your break and the kind of flying you used to do, it may take you a few less hours or it may take more. Obviously an old multi-thousand-hour freight dog is going to take less than a 100-hour hamburger hopper. Nonetheless, the Two Big Rules for how long it will take to come back are exactly the same Two Big Rules for how long it will take a brand new person to solo: 1. You'll do it when you're safe 2. It takes however long it takes to meet #1. (You can always lie about how long it took afterward just like everyone else does when talking about how long it took them to solo.)

There's a proverb that says a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Fortunately, if you're thinking of coming back, you have a lot less than a thousand miles to cover, no matter how long you've been away! You can take that first step by getting in touch with a nearby flight school or flying club, leaving me a comment or email, or checking out AOPA's new Rusty Pilots program.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Who put Loki in charge of the weather this year?

For almost everyone in the United States, this has been an unusual winter. Here in the Great Lakes area, we have been blasted with cold front after bitter cold front, and many of them have been powerful enough to plow their way all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, bringing snow all the way to New Orleans. In the past couple of weeks, we have been teased with some almost 60° days, only to have those hopes of Spring squashed with another coat of snow.

We're entering the first of the semi-annual unsettled weather periods, albeit a bit late. The first unsettled period happens around March or April, as cold winter transitions to warmer summer, and the second one happens around October or November, as the fronts battle back southward and summer cools to winter.

This is why the old adage goes, "March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb," but the particularly strong cold polar air has been able to keep the transitional warm southern air from making its way up to us for later in the season than usual. Normally by March the warm air is pushing up against the cold air and fighting it out over the Great Lakes, and as the month goes on the cold weakens and the warm strengthens and has made its way to Canada by April. Not this year.

The old stalwart of aviation weather sources, the unsurprisingly-named aviationweather.gov, rolled out a new look yesterday. While checking out the changes, I see that the weather this year still isn't done with the surprises. Check out this prog panel:

24-hour NWS prog chart for 3-26/27-2014. Click to embiggen.
The areas in green are areas of precipitation. The warm front extending from the Texas/New Mexico border all the way up to South Dakota in the left panel shows the classic trajectory of warm, moist air getting sucked north by a low, leaving a trail of wetness in its wake. If the panel went out another 12-24 hours, you'd probably be able to see it turn into an occlusion as what is left of the warm front spirals around the low like spaghetti being wrapped around a spinning fork.

That is a lot of moisture over a lot of the country! But wait—there's more! Order in the next 20 minutes and we'll throw in this spiffy NCEP forecast chart for no additional charge:
Can't get enough of rain and/or snow? Well, you've come to the right place! Just wait another 12 hours and there's a bonus deluge for you—that's three charts for the price of one:
Buy stock in umbrella and road salt companies today.
Even for this time of year, when the weather is still unsettled and there is a lot going on in the atmosphere, this much green and pink is unusual. Days like this are what make all the work that goes into an instrument rating worthwhile.

Friday, March 14, 2014

A million little pilots and not a single transponder

This probably looks like a mundane, "nothing to see here" weather radar snapshot. However, it's actually a nice sign that spring is finally just around the corner!

Why? Because those circular green patches are not rain, but are actually flocks of birds migrating back north and being reflected on radar:

From Weather Underground, one of my favorite weather sites.
You see this same pattern in the evening/pre-dawn hours during the summer when bugs and birds are active. In the fall, the green patches start from the north and work their way south.

Happy almost-spring!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

That crazy compass: lag, lead, dip, UNOS, ANDS, WTF?

One of the harder things to understand is the quirks of the compass. I looked at some videos on YouTube, and they're terrible. All of them do the same thing: drown you in details that even a Ph.D. in magnetropolifloobobbery wouldn't care about, much less someone just trying to figure out what that tempermental little bouncy ball up front is actually saying.

Sometimes, adding some detail is useful for filling in some pieces of the puzzle. Other times, instructors just pile detail after excruciating detail on the student and then act surprised when the person they're allegedly teaching ends up knowing even less about the subject than before. That's what most of the videos I found do: "Hey, here's a bunch of stuff you don't care about and will never use, and if you don't get it, just try harder!"

Since I try to cut to the heart of the subject, and since knowing about pendulous mounting and where the center of gravity of the compass is does you no good when you're just trying to fly an airplane somewhere, I created a pair of videos that show you what compass errors look like in a simulated cockpit. No geomagnetic theory required.

These videos are short, but the sort of thing I wish I had had when I was learning to fly. (Then again, I wish YouTube had even been around when I was learning.)

The first covers the turning errors:

And the second covers the acceleration/deceleration errors:

If there is a way I could have made these more useful for you, or you have a topic you haven't found a good video on, leave me a comment and I'll see what I can do for you.