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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Goldilocks and the Three Descent Rates: Too much, too little, and just right

Recently, I created a video where I mash up Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Microsoft Flight Simulator X into a lesson on how to figure out where you're going to land, and whether you're going to be too high, too low, or just right. A viewer over at the Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel asked what is too much of a descent rate in a small plane. Let's answer this, but first, the video:


I make it a point to reply to comments on the channel (just as I do here), and in the course of replying, it became obvious that this was going to be too long a subject to fit into one comment.

First, let's figure out what a proper descent rate is. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it is and it isn't. It's incredibly easy if you're doing an instrument approach or a long straight-in. Ironically, it's more complicated if you're out flying on a clear blue day just puttering around in the pattern.

Let's get the easy one out of the way first. If you're on an instrument approach or tower tells you to make a five-mile straight in for the runway, 99% of the time you're going to be coming in on a 3° glidepath. It doesn't matter if I'm flying the 172 into old Lorain County Regional Airport or the Dash-8 into Newark or Washington-Dulles International Airport, I'm still going to be coming in at the same angle.

(That's nice, but what does a "3° glidepath" mean? In its simplest terms, it means you go down 300 feet for every 1 nautical mile you go forward. If you're on a 3° glidepath for 3 miles, you'll lose 900 feet of altitude. 5 miles? 1500 feet. 10 miles? 3000 feet. And so on.)

Since you're going to be doing the same thing every time, it sure would be nice if there was a rule of thumb you could use to get the descent rate you'll need quickly. There isn't one. There are two! Both of them are simple, so use whichever one you find easier.

You'll need to know your groundspeed for either one of these. If you've got a GPS, all it knows is groundspeed, so whatever it says it is what it is. If you don't, then you'll need to know your wind components and subtract the headwind from your airspeed to get a precise answer. This can get messy (although there are some rules of thumb to help you out), and the winds you're probably to be doing your private or instrument training in aren't likely to be strong enough to make more than a 10-20% difference in the final answer anyway. This is why we're just going to assume your groundspeed is the same as your airspeed from here on out.

Method one: Take half your ground speed and add a 0.

If I'm flying the 172 at 80 knots: 80/2 = 40. Add a 0 for 400 feet-per-minute (FPM).

If I'm flying the Dash-8 at 110 knots: 110/2 = 55. Add a 0 for 550 FPM.

If I'm flying the Space Shuttle at 300 knots: 300/2 = 150. Add a 0 for 1500 FPM.

Method two: Multiply your groundspeed by 5.

If I'm flying the 172 at 80 knots: 80 x 5 = 400.

If I'm flying the Dash-8 at 110 knots: 110 x 5 = 550.

If I'm flying the Space Shuttle at 300 knots: 300 x 5 = 1500.

This rule of thumb is actually how I calculated the descent rate during the planning for the River Visual 19 into Washington-National  videos. Using this in reverse is why I picked 90 knots to fly it at, since 90 x 5 = 450, which is a manageable rate that also gets me there in a reasonable amount of time. The 300 feet per nautical mile rule is why the chart designers picked what they did when they created the approach:


Now that's all well and good, but when you're flying the pattern, you're not going to be coming in on a 3° glidepath. You're going to be coming in at closer to a 5° glidepath when you're working the pattern. This is a nice balance between being close enough to the runway to still make it if the engine quits and not being too steep.

Does this mean you have to throw Method 1 and Method 2 out the window? Not really. Since 4.5 is 50% more than 3, you can adjust them to fit. (Unlike the first example, they don't give the same result, but they're close enough. They will equal each other if you change the second method to 7.5, but if you can multiply things by 7.5 in your head, you're a better mental math wizard than the rest of us.) There's also a third method in this case, which is the one I use.

Method one: Take half your ground speed and add a 0. Take half of the result and add it to itself.

If I'm flying the 172 at 80 knots: 80/2 = 40. Add a 0 for 400 feet-per-minute (FPM). Half of 400 is 200. 400 + 200 = 600 FPM.

If I'm flying the Dash-8 at 110 knots: 110/2 = 55. Add a 0 for 550 FPM. Half of 550 is 275. 550 + 275 = 825 FPM.

If I'm flying the Space Shuttle at 300 knots: 300/2 = 150. Add a 0 for 1500 FPM. Half of 1500 is 750. 1500 + 750 = 2250 FPM.

Method two: Multiply your groundspeed by 8.

If I'm flying the 172 at 80 knots: 80 x 8 = 640.

If I'm flying the Dash-8 at 110 knots: 110 x 8 = 880.

If I'm flying the Space Shuttle at 300 knots: 300 x 8 = 2400.

Method three: Forget about your vertical speed indicator and use your eyeballs.

In the pattern, all this math is too complicated because you're changing airspeeds and flap settings at the same time. If you learned (or are learning) in a 172, you probably hear "85, 75, 65" in your head to this day, meaning drop a notch of flaps and pitch for 85 knots. Drop another notch and go to 75. Drop the third and go to 65. Do you want to do arithmetic or do you want to fly? You probably can't do both at the same time, especially since your descent angle is also changing every time you add flaps—after all, that's one of the reasons airplanes have flaps.

If you covered my vertical speed indicator (VSI) and asked me what my descent rate is, two things would happen. First, I would have no idea you covered it up, because I don't look at it in the pattern. I'm looking at the runway numbers at that point in the flight, not the instruments. Second, I'd answer you not with a number but with one of three answers: "Not enough", "Too much", or "Just right".

Don't believe me? I take this to the ultimate test in my very first YouTube video ever, where I fly around the entire pattern with the glass panel completely off, so there are no instruments to look at whatsoever!


How do I know if I have the correct descent rate without the VSI? As I look at my aiming point, one of three things is happening:

1. It's moving down my windscreen = "Not enough."

2. It's moving up my windscreen = "Too much."

3. It's staying at the same point in my windscreen = "Just right."

Each of these has a fix:

1. "Not enough" = reduce power some.

2. "Too much" = add some power.

3. "Just right" = don't touch anything.

Again, if you're in a 172, you're in luck because you have a nice rule of thumb for how much to change the power to start a descent. For every 100 FPM more of descent you want, reduce power by 100 RPM. If you want to reduce your descent rate, add 100 RPM for every 100 FPM you want to reduce it by. But what if you don't have a VSI or you had me as an instructor so you had to fly with no instruments at all before you were allowed to solo?

Simple:

1. "Not enough" = reduce power some. If your aiming point is still moving down after you've given the plane a few seconds to respond, reduce a little more. If it's going up now, you reduced too much. Add about half of what you just reduced it by. (In other words, if reducing the power by 100 RPM made the aiming point start moving up, add about 50 RPM back.)

2. "Too much" = add some power. If your aiming point is still moving up after you've given the plane a few seconds to respond, add a little more. If it's going down now, you added too much. Take out about half of what you added.

3. "Just right" = don't touch anything.

By "some" I mean "a little". Don't make massive power changes or your descent will look like a camel's back. If you're in a 172, "a little" means about 100 RPM. Don't add or subtract much more than that unless you're obviously way too high or way to low—and in that case, you'll probably want to consider going around instead of trying to salvage an approach that is likely to end up unstable.

I use this same process even when I'm flying the Dash-8. On a normal approach, around 20% power tends to work well. If I'm a little low, I'll add about 5%. If I'm too high, I'll reduce it by about 5%. Just that much of an adjustment almost always fixes things, but if it doesn't, I'll add or subtract another 3% or so. Smaller corrections sooner are better than big corrections later.

I've answered the question of why descent rates matter, but I still haven't answered the commenter's main question. How much of a descent rate is too much in a small plane?

There isn't a hard-and-fast rule. The big answer is that if you have to dive to catch the proper glidepath, just go around and try it again rather than force an unstable approach. Good landings come from good approaches, and greaser landings start a mile before touchdown. The biggest problem most students have is being too high on final, which means more power needed to be reduced abeam the numbers. Fix it then and you won't have to fix it later.

A more specific answer is that anything more than 1000 FPM once you've put the first notch of flaps in is getting close, and it's definitely too much when you've turned final. Once you've put the first notch in and slowed to 85, 1000 FPM is approximately a 7° glidepath. That's steeper than necessary, but at this point in the pattern, you're probably not much below 1000 feet in altitude, so if you bump up against 1000 FPM for a few seconds, you've still got time.

However, once you're on final and slowed to 65 knots, 1000 FPM is closer to a 10° glidepath! If you rolled out on final at about 400 feet and 1/2 mile out, which is right about where you should be, a descent rate of 1000 FPM will kill you in 20 seconds. Our airline's procedures prohibit descents greater than 1200 FPM when we're below 1000 feet. For the same margin of safety in a 172, this would mean no more than about 700 FPM on final. If you have no wind, that's pretty close to what you'll be doing. The more headwind you have, the less FPM you'll need, since your groundspeed will be slower.

Learning to judge whether your spot is moving up or down or not at all is a skill that is perfect to practice in a flight simulator. You can create a scenario where you're lined up on final and practice it several times in less than 10 minutes. In a flight simulator, you don't have to worry about getting dangerously low and you don't have to pay a lot of extra money if you're too high and have to go around, since you can just reset and try again.

Once you get good at judging your height on a straight-in, you can progress to creating a flight at your home airport where you're on midfield downwind and getting ready to start the full descent profile. This is much harder in a flight simulator than it is in real life, since it's harder to look out the side windows in a sim. If you can master this, your training (or your approaches in general) will go much more smoothly, and your investment in time will be repaid by much less money on lessons!

This technique is something I wish someone had told me when I was learning to fly. It wasn't until I read Wolfgang Langewiesche's classic Stick and Rudder (the book that gave Keyboard & Rudder its name) and became a flight instructor that I found out there was an easy way to figure out whether I was on the correct glidepath.

Happy practicing, and see you next Wednesday!

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.


Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The gorilla in the cockpit


Selective attention/blindness isn't just something husbands and teenagers have. Check out this video that demonstrates in only one minute why fixation in the cockpit is a bad thing:



Multitasking was/is a popular buzzword beginning in the 1990s as people began to convince themselves that they really could do more than one thing at a time. As the video shows, this isn't really the case: you can really only do one thing well at one time. You can either count the passes or notice the guest, but you can't do both at once.

Many—in fact, probably most people—will disagree with this statement, which is why they're usually shocked by the reveal at the end of the video. Most people think they're good multitaskers because they're so bad at it that they don't know they're bad at it. This inability to recognize that one is bad at something has been known to science since the late 1990s, and even has its own name: the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Yes, I know that there are a lot of people who think they can text, watch TV, surf the web on their tablet, and do homework all at the same time. After all, they do it all the time, so it must be possible.

I'm not saying it's not possible, I'm saying that it's not possible to do all of them well. Afterward, if you did all of the above, you wouldn't have had a decent text conversation, couldn't remember anything substantive about the TV program, couldn't pass a 3 question quiz on what you read on the internet, and turned in a substandard homework assignment—all while thinking you had no problem!

One of the reasons people don't realize how bad they are at multitasking is because there is no real-time feedback on any of the things they're doing. If they drop out of the show they're watching to type a text message, they don't notice it. There is no pack of gauges to show how badly one thing is suffering at the expense of another thing.

However, you can't fool physics, and the cockpit is a continuous, real-time demonstrator of an actual multitasking environment. That is precisely why so many beginning students are totally overwhelmed the first several hours. And that's with the instructor handling the navigation, radios, and collision avoidance tasks!

Have you ever held altitude perfectly only to discover you were way off heading? Of course you have. Everyone has. An old joke goes something like this:

Flight instructor: "OK, let's do some straight and level."

Student pilot: "Which one do you want first?"

A main cause of this early difficulty is selective attention. We can only give the majority of our attention to one thing at a time, with a smaller chunk left over for everything else. If we get fixated on one thing (and we are wired to fixate), the other horses stray out of the barn. While we fix those horses, the other ones we had under control wander away. It's why your instructor probably warned (or will warn) you more than once not to let your eyes get fixated on any one instrument.

It would be nice to be able to keep the horses in the barn and in the field in check at the same time, but that's not how our brain is built. Asking it to devote a lot of processing power to more than one thing at a time is like asking your legs to swim and do hurdles at the same time: it's just not going to happen.

If we're bad at multitasking, and the cockpit is a highly multitasking environment, how does anyone learn to fly? The answer is, like all skills, practice.

Practice is what takes the 100 things that are going on at the same time and makes them automatic. As they become more automatic, they require less conscious effort, which frees up your brainpower for other things. As you get better at holding an altitude, your brain doesn't have to work as hard. This means you have more mental reserve left over to hold your heading. As you become better at holding a heading, that frees up processing power to add another task, and so on.

Your first few lessons, you probably won't know where you are, how you got there, or how long you've been there. King Kong himself could be in the back seat with a boatload of bananas and you probably wouldn't notice, since all your brainpower is devoted to trying not to fall too far behind the airplane. Don't worry: this is a perfectly normal part of the learning process. Everyone who has a pilot certificate today went through that same feeling you're going through.

The good news is that as you get better, that overwhelming feeling goes away. The bad news is that it comes back when you start working in the pattern toward solo. The good news? It goes away again as you get better at that.

There is a feeling that never goes away: the feeling of your first solo. So keep it up and don't let any gorilla get in your way!


The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Permanence of Temporary Things: A Meditation

In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia,
On the trail of the lonesome pine—
In the pale moonshine our hearts entwine,
Where she carved her name and I carved mine;
Oh, June, like the mountains I'm blue—
Like the pine I am lonesome for you,
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia,
On the trail of the lonesome pine.


—from "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine"
A few hundred million years ago, a river dried up. It had been around for several million years, a barely-noticeable flicker in the geological sense of time. Perhaps it had found a new path, as shallow things sometimes do when things start to change around them. Perhaps its source had dried up and it no longer had anything to draw from, and as its lifespring dried up, it did too.

Whatever the case, its end is lost in the eternal current of time. We would have nothing left to speculate about had it not crossed paths with the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its temporary existence left a permanent pass in this ridge, and a way for things to get from one side of it to the other. It is gone, but it will never leave the ridge it once knew.

Looking eastward from V128, flying from CRW to IAD. If you want to look closer, the coordinates are approximately 38° 29' N, 78° 42' W.
Some millions of years before, that mountain ridge started skyward. Mountains climb when we're not looking. They grow like children, who stay the same day by day but somehow get bigger and bigger by the year. We grow like mountains, shaped by the forces that surround us, made distinct by what we cross paths along with along the way.

Sometime this growing process is tumultuous and chaotic. It is always disruptive, going from what is to what will be. That's why it's called growth. It also happens when we're not looking, or happens too slowly for us to see. We humans are almost as good at not seeing things that are there as we are at seeing things that aren't.


Sometimes the forces we encounter during that growth leave us a bit twisted. Where we are twisted, where the stresses and strains occur, we also end up the tallest.



Some of those we cross paths with cause scars. Those scars, like everything, may seem permanent, but they are no less subject to the erosion of time as anything else. They may seem more solid, more fixed, but their permanence is only temporary.

Handled well—and we all have to handle them—they become a better part of our character. The moon has craters, scars from impacts it suffered long ago with bodies long gone; they are what make it a beautiful fixture in the night sky instead of a plain bright ball. The Grand Canyon draws people from around the planet to drink in its immense, rugged beauty, yet is a scar left by the Colorado River. One of its most endearing features is that as the river carved its way through the plateau, it revealed the layers that are present underneath our feet, yet would never be seen any other way.

Almost yesterday, in geologic time, ice covered much of North America. The ice's day was as temporary as it was recent, but as it made its abrupt retreat, it gouged out permanent scars in the landscape of New York State. These long scars became a beautifully parallel set of lakes: the Finger Lakes.



Those scars are evidence that something's presence—and now its absence—was at one time important. It is the essence of the temporary given permanence.

Not everyone, however, is that important to us. Some pass through our lives like power lines cross mountains: unflinchingly straight while not even scratching our surface.


Others, like this sunset, are even more transient and temporary


yet leave us with a permanent memory of the spiral of light they caused to dance on the ceiling for a few brief moments before they passed on.



Some leave dry passes within us as a trace that they were once there. Others stay with us, filling up and flowing through those passes, and we shape them as they shape us.


And for those whose lives we pass through temporarily, perhaps the best hope we can have is to bring them a rainbow on their cloudy day; a bit of glory in their gloom.


We contain mountains within us, and from the top of those mountains flow rivers that shape others. Unlike mountains made of stone, however, we are made of stronger stuff. We can choose our response to the forces around us and change what kind of water springs from our tops. Only by doing so can our temporariness have a permanent impact.


The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Flying the River Visual into Washington National

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The Washington Monument, the White House, the Capitol Building, the Lincoln Memorial and its reflecting pool, the Watergate Hotel, the Pentagon, and the world's most unintentionally violated prohibited airspace... all of these are only one short flight away. Only one short illegal flight unless you're a scheduled airline, that is, thanks to the "enhanced" security around Washington, D.C. after September 11, 2001.



Fortunately, we have flight simulators. Flight simulators let us practice old skills, acquire new ones, and rehearse approaches for free in a not-for-keeps environment. We can record our own videos and instant replays (I have a short video on that on the Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel) to go back an analyze what we did well and what we still need to improve on, and we can do it without fear of failing because no one is judging us except ourselves.

Nonetheless, probably one of most fun things about flight simulators is that we can use them to go places we'd never be able to go, whether it be because of time, money, or, in the case of flying into Washington-National, it being prohibited.

So I did just that recently. Although my daily life as an airline pilot has me based at Washington-Dulles, I have to fly in through DCA pretty regularly when all the direct flights to Dulles are full. As a happy coincidence, while I was planning my videos on flying the River Visual to 19 at DCA, I ended up in the cockpit jumpseat on a day the crew was flying that same approach in real life.

I was pleased to see that they flew it in real life the same way I had planned it in flight simulator. The first video goes into the details of planning it: laying out the route, picking navigational aids (in this case, a VOR) to help verify we're flying the route we planned, determining a good descent rate to use on the way in, etc.


Reader Bonus: Here's a tip I didn't have a chance to put in either video due to time constraints of the Five Minute Flight Lesson format: when planning descents in a 172, a rough rule of thumb is that you'll get about 100 feet per minute for every 100 RPM of throttle reduction. For example, if you're cruising at 2400 RPM and want a 500 foot per minute descent, set the power to approximately 1900 RPM. When you reduce the throttle, the nose will naturally lower on its own to maintain the airspeed you had it trimmed for Let the plane seek it—don't hold the nose up unless you're trying to slow down! Every plane has its own rough guide, so experiment with your particular aircraft and see what its power/descent ratio is. With just a little experimentation you'll make your flying life much easier!

In the second part, we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor and actually fly the plan. Along the way, you get to see some pictures I took while the crew took care of the flying.


Naturally, the second part has more views. In actuality, though, the first one is more important. Sure, the second video has a well-executed approach and has more pretty scenes, but it went so well (and, like almost all my videos, it was done in one take; no trying over and over again until I got it right) only because of all the work that went into planning it. Everything in the first video enabled the second video to take place. Peak performance comes from prior planning.

In flying, and in life, plan your flight and fly your plan!

The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Hairy Ball Theorem: Guaranteeing a bad hair day somewhere

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(This week's post was inspired by a small bit in one of Dan Lewis's excellent "Now I Know" daily trivia pieces. Head on over there and sign up for his free newsletter!)

There will be weather for approximately 1 billion more years from next Thursday. Since you will have probably stopped renewing your medical certificate by then, that means you'll have to deal with weather for as long as you fly.

Why will there be weather for a billion years? Simple: the Sun is what causes weather. Through the unequal heating of the Earth's surface by sunlight, air masses are warmed at different rates, causing warm air at the equator to try to flow to the colder area at the poles and vice versa. On its voyage, it runs into a bunch of different processes that combine to create the crazy dance that is the weather (and which prevent it from ever actually completing its journey). Bill Nye, someone else whose name happens to also fit the "[Name] the [noun] Guy" pattern, has the most awesome demonstration of this flow I've ever seen, and in less than two minutes:



Why only a billion more years and not forever? Simple: the Sun will eventually make it impossible for weather to exist. Like most of us, as it ages, it expands around the waistline. Eventually, it will expand so much on its way to becoming a red giant that it will engulf the Earth. Before then, it will strip the Earth of its water and atmosphere as it boils everything off the planet. This will make the California drought look like the Amazonian rainforest, and being below the surface of the Sun will make density altitude calculations even harder for student pilots to figure out than they already are.

The Sun guarantees there will always be weather, but it doesn't say whether that weather will be bad or good. That's where the Hairy Ball Theorem kicks in.

The Hairy Ball Theorem may sound like something best not solved with an Epilator (perhaps Occam's Razor would be more help), but it's really a simple idea with profound consequences. It's actually why it is a mathematical certainty that there will be somewhere on the planet with absolutely no wind at all. Watch this video by the brilliant guys at Minute Physics to get a quick grasp on it:


What's the significance of having no wind somewhere? Besides, doesn't that happen all the time? When it's really nice out and the skies are a beautiful shade of blue, there usually isn't much of a breeze at all. That's because there's a nice high pressure system parked over top of you, and you're at the center of its circulation, where there is little to no wind. Take a look at this picture from Wunderground and note how the nice weather over the middle of the country is being brought by some high-pressure systems (like the one by north Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle and the one in northwest Nebraska):

The blue Hs are high-pressure systems, and the red Ls are low-pressure systems.
There are two sides to every coin, and if there are places with high pressure, there must be places with low pressure. By the same token, if high pressure brings nice weather, we can expect low pressure to bring bad weather. By looking at that map, we can also see that that is generally true: most of the bad weather and rain is accompanied by big red Ls.

There's more to that map, though. Look to the center right, and notice there's a L off the coast of Virginia. It doesn't look like much now, but here's what it looked like less than one day earlier:

Photo from NASA via Wikipedia.
That looks like an awfully angry low pressure system, and it is. It happens to be 2015's first named storm, Tropical Storm Ana, as it made its way over North Carolina. Unfortunately, Ana doesn't have a well-developed eye, but that's what is at the core of the most intense form of low-pressure systems: a hurricane.

While hurricanes are known popularly by their destructive winds covering thousands of square miles, at their core is a small area called the eye. In the wall of that eye, conveniently called the "eyewall", the most intense winds are found. And at the center of the eye is... no wind. (Or hardly any wind, at least.) It's a major cowlick on the planet that—unlike the one on top of your head—moves around. The Hairy Ball Theorem says that "every cow must have at least one cowlick," and that's an enormous one.

Hurricane Andrew barreling toward Florida in 1992 on its way to becoming one of the most destructive hurricanes in United States history. Note the well-defined eye at the center.
The Hairy Ball Theorem is not—I repeat NOT—why there is no wind at the center of a hurricane. In fact, in the big bucket of meteorology, it isn't even a drop as far as importance. There are many, many complex reasons why storms are the way they are, and the Coriolis Effect is the major one that makes Hs cycle clockwise and Ls go counter-clockwise. The Hairy Ball Theorem says nothing about the "cowlick" or where it will be; its relevance is only that it guarantees that there will be at least one place like this somewhere on Earth.

Well, actually, it doesn't limit itself to Earth. We've found tornadoes on Mars, the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, and here's a picture of a storm on Saturn taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft:


And a cowlick on the head of Uranus is even visible on the left side of this picture taken by the Hubble Space Telescope:
There is a neat 2-minute movie also available for free at NASA's Hubble site.

But after all that, do not tell your flight instructor, science teacher, the person who administered your private pilot written, or anybody else that cyclonic rotation happens because of the Hairy Ball Theorem, because it doesn't. The Coriolis Effect does that, so keep your fuzzy balls to yourself. The Hairy Ball Theorem is good for two things: 1. Guaranteeing there will be a spot with no wind and 2. Making topologists giggle. That's all.

Now I'm off to eat read about the Ham Sandwich Theorem before the No Free Lunch Theorem gets in my way. See you next Wednesday!

The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Being an Airline Pilot, one year in: Pro Pilot Ponderings

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This is the last formal post in the Becoming an Airline Pilot Series. We've come a long way together, from interviewing and getting ready for the big class date, crushing ground school and getting crushed in the sim, learning to guide a 22-ton airliner through some of the world's busiest airspace, and connecting people despite Mother Nature's best efforts.

Now that the series has come to an end (until I upgrade to Captain, that is), there will be more of the mix of oddball, funny, beautiful, and practical posts that those of you who have been following Keyboard and Rudder for a long time have been used to. While the Part 121 world has let me see how the "other half" lives, it hasn't diminished my love of flying for flying's sake.

The previous entries in the series were detailed week-by-week accounts. However, this one wraps up four months of activity since the last one, so it is a melange of observations and short anecdotes about what's happened since then.

Although I've been doing the job almost a year, I'm actually liking it more, not less. With any job, the better you get at it, the more enjoyable it is. And with any job, the more you do things, the more they become routine. However, unlike most jobs, flying may become routine, but it never becomes boring.

There are people—invariably those who have never flown for a living—who look down on First Officers because they haven't tacked on that fourth stripe yet. Those people don't bother me at all; in fact, I'm always a little embarrassed for them because they have no understanding of the dynamic in the cockpit between a Captain and a good FO. A skilled First Officer makes a flight run much more smoothly and makes the Captain's job easier. Until I had about a hundred hours under my belt, I'd often end a day's flying feeling guilty about being as much an impediment to the smooth operation of the flight as a help. As I've learned to do my job well, I've begun to be able to anticipate what the Captain will need before they need it, and now more often than not when I'm asked to do something, my answer is, "Already done."

I try to anticipate what will be needed because now that I've gotten good at my position, I can make an effort to not only understand the flight from the perspective of my own duties, but through the Captain's as well. After all, I will be in that seat someday, and the more I learn now the better at it I'll be when I get there. It also helps me to become the sort of FO I'd want to fly with when I'm on the other side of the cockpit.

I've flown with bad Captains and outstanding ones, and they all have one thing in common: I've learned a lot from all of them. If even the great Bob Buck said he learned something on the last flight of his celebrated, multi-decade career that spanned from DC-2s to 747s, then I'd better be learning something every day, too.

The bad ones are lessons in how not to behave as a Captain, and fortunately there have been way fewer of them than ones who are great examples. All of the bad ones share one characteristic: every single one of them think rules are things that only apply to other people, not them. And almost every single thing I've seen them do that was downright stupid wouldn't have happened if they had simply followed the rules.

I got an e-logbook for Christmas and spent the winter month overnights transferring 1200+ entries from the paper ones to it. It gave me something to do while cooped up in hotel rooms waiting for the weather to break, and now I'm always up to date on the logbook because I can easily update it with the day's activity on the van to the hotel.

I got a line in January. Reserve times here are short, as I spent just over 3 months on reserve. Reserve is never fun, but it's not as bad as it could be because reserve FOs here fly a lot, so there isn't a whole lot of sitting around twiddling thumbs. I actually timed out because of all the hours I flew on reserve in December: I hit the 190 hours in 28 days FDP (flight duty period) limit, the 60 hours in one week FDP limit, and got to 98.2 out of 100 flight hours all at the same time and ended up getting pulled off the last day of a 4-day.

The upgrade times here are fast. In fact, people in the class six months ahead of mine are upgrading, which would put my upgrade at 16 months. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that can continue, because the pilot shortage has really started to become a major issue in the last six months. We're getting to the point where we're so short on First Officers that I may have to wait to upgrade due to a lack of FOs behind me to replace me. If you're a pilot looking for a job, now is an incredibly good time for you!

Commuting is by far the worst part of the job, and is the only part of the experience that I can say I seriously dislike. We have some commuter clause perks they added to our contract in 2014 where we get 4 free hotel rooms a month at the beginning of trips so we can fly in the day before, but all that does is reduce the stress of getting to work by stealing half or more of your last day off. We don't get penalized (except for the loss of pay) if we can't make it in as long as we have 2 flights booked, which is pretty standard among airlines.

I've had to leave the flying club I was a part of due to lack of time. The wife thought I should stop racking up $100/month dues when I don't have time to fly for fun anymore, and I agreed with her. On the other hand, I miss the old 172 terribly and want to fly it. There are some pilots here who either still fly GA aircraft or would like to, but unfortunately the majority lost interest in their roots once they end up flying for a living.

Look below the wing of the Dash-8 ahead of us. See anything?

How about now? Yes, that IS a 172 mixing in during the morning push at Washington-Dulles! I want to be that guy someday.

One cold but beautiful Sunday morning in Charleston we were getting ready for the flight back to Washington-Dulles. I was heads-down programming the flight plan into the FMS and I heard a 182 taking off. I was too busy to look up, but I was thinking, "Man, I wish I was up there like that enjoying a beautiful Sunday morning flight just because."

But the envy was short-lived because even though I was flying someone else's airplane on someone else's schedule, I still had it good because I was getting ready to fly one of the few airliners left that hasn't had all the stick-and-rudder challenge engineered out of it. The people with Shiny Jet Syndrome may look down on Dash-8s, but the way I look at it, turbine time is turbine time, and if you can handle a Dash, you can handle the big iron. You don't know what a V1 cut is until you've had one in a Dash-8.

Nonetheless, going through the logbook during the e-logbook conversion made me miss the entries like "Sunset over Sandusky Bay" or "Lunch at Put-in-Bay" or just "Puttering around with wife", which I'd like to continue to do someday.

However, those entries are hard to make when you're too busy making ones like one from 12/23/14 at IAD: "One of the last planes to make it in this morning before airport shut down. ILS 1C: Used the 'approach lights in sight, continue-to-100-above' rule for first time. Wx 150 feet, vis 3/4; IAD dropped to 100 and 1/8 shortly afterward and airport closed." (A nice feature about the e-logbook is that I can make the comments as long as I want.) In my GA days, if the Terminal Area Forecast was that bleak, we just wouldn't go. That's obviously not an option anymore when you're working for a scheduled carrier, and now any TAF better than 300-3/4 makes me yawn.

Another entry from a couple weeks later as one of many winter storms rolled through the Northeast: "So much turbulence on the approach that two passengers threw up. Neither of them were in the cockpit. Landing was forgettable, but any safe landing in conditions like that one is a good one."

And one from 1/26/15: "We were the ONLY airplane to make it in to State College today because of Winter Storm Juno. Heard the [airline name edited out so they won't get jealous] ahead of us on NY Approach decide to divert. Those Canadian engineers know how to build a bird that isn't afraid of a little snow and ice!"

The State College, PA ramp that day. Not a single shiny jet to be found, but the Dash-8 ate that approach for lunch.
In Toronto, where DeHavilland (now Bombardier) builds the Dash, ice is just a little sky bling, and brakes are for planes without a prop-beta range. The DHC-8 isn't the most elegant aircraft ever built, but it does things an airliner isn't supposed to be able to do. Canada must have felt so guilty about unleashing Justin Bieber that they gave us Rick Moranis, the movie Strange Brew, and the equally-quirky yet amazingly-capable Dash-8 to make up for it. Throw in some maple syrup and it's not a bad trade.

And with that, the Becoming an Airline Pilot series draws to a close. Next week it's back to Keyboard & Rudder's normal programming, starting Wednesday with a post on what hairy balls have to do with flying. Seriously!

See the series index.

The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.


Thursday, April 30, 2015

Being an Airline Pilot, 6 months in: Donuts in the sky

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Remember the scene in the movie Pushing Tin where the New York controllers are acting certifiably insane, spitting out terse instructions at a mile a minute, and doing a bunch of other nutty things that would get them locked up in the non-aviation world?

Oh, wait: that was the plot of the entire movie. And on the other side of an overcaffeinated controller's microphone is the headset of the pilot who has to fly those commands.

I'd never be able to fly the old 172 into Newark at noon, but it's an everyday thing for me now as a Dash driver. Even after all the times I've done it, I still get a bit of a thrill out of the crazy dance NY Approach makes up to wiggle everybody in there at once. They whip up a fresh batch of nuttiness every time, and always seem to throw into the airplane jambalaya a Boeing 767 to follow on the way in—and as the FO I'm almost always the one flying the "ins". On the days I don't end up behind a seven-six, it's an A380 instead: the plane that's so big that it doesn't look like it should fly; a 600-ton, half-billion dollar bumblebee that could seat every single person in my old high school and still have seats left over.

It's just another day in the Newark stew, and that's what the "stay above the heavy's flight path" thing you memorized for the test and promptly jettisoned from the memory banks way back in the old ground school days was babbling about. I hardly ever used that in the old days, but it seems like I use that 80% of the time in Newark. I'm not sure I could fly an ILS into EWR without staying half-a-dot high now.

In fact, one day we were maintenance delayed departing for EWR, so we arrived an an off-peak time. Since it was slower than normal—which in New York airspace means there are only a million planes instead of a full bazillion—we weren't assigned the usual "Speed 190 to BUZZD/DOOIN" that we always get, and it got me off my game. I'm so used to having to scream in until 5 miles out, then chop the power and push the props up to slow down enough to drop the gear and flaps that I'm better at that than I am at the textbook-prescribed profile now. Imagine keeping your 172 doing 120 until 2 miles out and you'll get a feel for what it's like every day there. (Of course, some people do that anyway.)

I had a line check in January on a Rochester-Newark leg. (One of the nice things about getting your private certificate is that you never have to take a checkride again if you don't want to. We get them twice a year.) The first half of the flight was as uneventful as the second half wasn't.

That day they told us to expect holding, which isn't unusual going into any of the big 3 NYC airports (Newark, JFK, and LaGuardia). However, on this flight every time we were coming up on the holding fix we were given they'd change their mind and just give us a delay vector (a turn away from the airport) instead. This happened over and over again. All the while we're getting closer and closer to our divert fuel, which due to the weather that day was a pretty high number. Finally on the third time they tell us to proceed to a fix and hold, with not much time before we got there.

Unlike when I went into Newark for the very first time, I was ready and waiting for them to throw their best pitch at me. They tried hard to beat me, but since I was waiting for their fastball, I had the holding pattern entered into the FMS (even if just barely in time) and was ready to hit "Arm hold". Seconds before we got there, they told us, "Fly heading 160. Expect ILS 22L." So all three of us gave a big sigh of relief, because we calculated that we only had 10 minutes of holding fuel available. As we're going in, we get "Fly heading 070, vectors for resequencing." Oh no! It looks like I'm going to have to divert for the first time ever and on my first line check!

After a short while, we thankfully get, "Proceed direct Teterboro. Best forward speed." Things went uneventfully after that, even though some of our autopilots are worse than instrument students at intercepting courses, which explains the slight wiggle (the "Honeywell shuffle") after the last sharp turn in the picture below. We ended up landing with less than 100 pounds over our divert fuel: what a day for a line check.

Even the check airman (who's been there about a decade) remarked that that was one of the craziest things he's ever seen, but we handled it very well. Pretty good for a rookie FO who hasn't done a line check before. Sure, our LOFTs (Line Oriented Flight Training: basically a simulated regular turn on the line with some twists and failures thrown in for fun and training) and recurrent scenarios aren't all that different, except it's totally different because you're on the ground in a sim without a plane full of pax behind you.

Here's what that excitement looked like from above. The flight starts at the upper left and goes to the bottom right. All that's missing is the Yakety Sax music:

Screenshot from FlightAware.com
With the next post, the Becoming an Airline Pilot series draws to a close. Next week, I'll wrap it up with a buffet of short observations and anecdotes of life on the line having people's lives on the line.

See the series index.

The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.