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Thursday, March 21, 2013

What do these videos have in common?

So what is it that they have in common? Simple.

Whatever it is you're making excuses for not being able to do, somewhere out there there is a 14-year-old girl doing whatever it is you "can't" and then some.

And if that didn't light a fire under your butt, she's probably doing it better too:

So whatever it is you want to do but "can't find the time/money/energy/etc." to accomplish, keep in mind that if you don't, someone else surely will. These girls didn't let age, the time demands of school, social pressures, or anything else stop them from getting on top of the world--why should you?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Glass Panels vs. Steam Gauges: Who wins? Who cares? Who needs 'em?

I'm in my late 30s; firmly in the Gen X category. I grew up playing video games starting with the Atari 2600, and I got a Commodore 64 when I was 9, so I've been soaked in technology for most of my life. In my former life, before I became a flight instructor, I was an IT guy. So you'd expect me of all people to be crazy about glass panels and gee-whiz technology.

The plane I got my private certificate and instrument rating in was a 2006 172SP, so it had a pretty Garmin G1000 glass panel. I'd say that I'm well above average in handling the complexities of glass, and I'd venture that with all the hours I've spent studying and teaching the G1000, I'm about expert in it now. I've flown Avidyne glass in hard IMC with relative ease.

I got my commercial (and multi), CFI, CFII, and MEI certificates on steam gauges. So, to get to the point, I've got a pretty fair amount of experience on both sides of the glass/steam debate. On one end, I've seen Garmin Perspectives that almost put a 787 to shame, and on the other end, the very first plane I ever flew hardly had enough to even be called steam, although it did have a 496:

Flight Design CTsw from the good old days back when they still offered a non-glass version.
There's a lot of brushed metal on that panel, isn't there?

This picture was taken during my second solo cross country, once I had the plane roughly stable enough to dig out the camera for a while. It was six years and almost an ATP certificate's worth of hours ago, so forgive the 80 feet I'm off altitude in the couple of minutes I took snapping pictures. (The old CTsw didn't trim out as nicely as the newer CTLS does anyway.) Somehow back then I knew I'd remember this plane even years later, even though I had no idea how many times I'd use this quick, fun snapshot as a training picture.

All the planes I've ever flown, from the CTsw above, through the six-pack 172s and Apaches and Seminoles, to the tricked out Cirruses with G1000s and Avidynes, have one thing in common: they all had more gauges than they needed. Yes, even ol' N40HA above. That little bird probably came closest to not being overkill, but it had the biggest attitude indicator on the planet! That's because its attitude indicator was the planet, and its attitude instrument filled the entire windscreen. You can't get more HD than that.

A panel like this one below was good enough to take Rinker Buck all the way across the country decades before GPS was even invented:

Piper Cub (from Wikipedia)
(As a side note, for a really good true story, you can read about his account flying that record-setting cross country as a teenager in Flight of Passage.)

Talk is cheap, so here's me putting my money where my mouth is and showing a student that a plane doesn't know what it's got up front and it doesn't care: pitch plus power equals performance no matter what. This means anyone can fly all the way around the pattern and land without having any glass at all, even me:

So, as you can see, the only instrument you need to fly an airplane is a piece of cork with a wire sticking out of it to show you your fuel level. If you have a watch, you don't even need that. You can take the weight you save on all the pretty bells and whistles and use it to bring along a couple of extra sandwiches to feed any aviator's most important instrument: the brain. A decent glass panel will help a good pilot be even better, but even the best glass in the world won't turn a bad pilot into a good one.

Monday, March 11, 2013

You've soloed. Now what?

Once a student has done their second solo, many times all they want to do is stay in the traffic pattern and practice touch-and-goes over and over again. Naturally, landing is one of the most important skills to have, but flying around in circles all day is not the most productive use of time, money, or enthusiasm. The freshly post-solo pilot is just that: a pilot. While being a pilot is cool, I don't train pilots: I train aviators. "Pilots" are people who wiggle sticks and jockey throttles, using their hands to regurgitate what they were told to do. "Aviators" are people who use their brains and hard-won skills to smoothly convince the plane that what they want to do was the plane's idea in the first place. It takes a lot more work and a lot more responsibility to become an aviator, just as it takes a lot more work and self-direction to make it to the NBA than it does to drop in on a pick-up game at the park.

I have a standard speech I give to those who have reached this stage. It goes something like this:

Congratulations! Now the hard part starts. You remember how I've told you before that as far as I'm concerned, my job is to put myself out of a job as soon as safely possible? You've now put me out of a job for the next several hours, and I couldn't be happier. It's now up to you to go out on your own and practice all those maneuvers we've been doing. This requires hard work and discipline on your part because just flying around aimlessly or sloppily (which tend to go hand-in-hand) is just a waste of your time, so you need to practice until you're twice as good as you'll need to be.

You'll know how good you need to be because of that magical book I told you about several lessons ago: the FAA's Practical Test Standards. Anything that's in that book is something that you can be tested on, and anything that's not in that book you can't be tested on. You'll know if you're doing it right because the book tells you what your standards are. For example, the tolerances on steep turns are +/- 100 feet on altitude, so practice until you can keep it within +/- 50 feet three times in a row. That way, if the stress of a checkride causes you to have a day that's 100% worse than you know you can do, you're still going to pass.

Have a plan for what you're going to practice before you even leave the ground. Make it no more than 1.5-2 hours, because if you're working hard like you should be, by the time you've flown for over an hour, you'll be mentally spent. The insidious thing about mental exhaustion is that it doesn't have a "burn" like muscle fatigue, which makes it so hard to spot that you probably won't think it's started to affect you. Believe me, it has, and it's also making your practice over 1-1.5 hours a waste of time. During your lessons with me, it's probably seemed I can read your mind sometimes because just when you're getting tired, I'll magically say, "Take me back to the airport." It's not that I have ESP; I just can recognize when you're starting to hit the point of diminishing returns. Not coincidentally, if you look in your logbook, you'll probably notice that most of our lessons have turned out to be in the 1.4-1.6 hour range, with the occasional 1.2 here or there on days you weren't at your peak or 1.7 on days you were really in the flow. I won't be there to tell you when to break it off anymore, so keep the 1.5-2 hour guideline in mind.

Sometimes practicing too long is even counterproductive because the maneuvers you might be practicing at the end aren't coming out very well, and you might think its because you just don't have the skills to become a pilot because you don't realize the reason they're coming out so sloppy is because you're mentally spent. Also, we all have bad days sometimes. If you get in the air and just don't feel like anything is going right, don't punish yourself or think you're not cut out for this. Just jump straight to your fun segment, head back to the airport, and call it a day. Trust me, you'll have a day later on where you can do no wrong, and it will all even out in the end.

You might have noticed that I said not to fly for more than 1.5-2 hours but not to practice for more than 1-1.5 hours. Where did the extra .5 go? That's for something else that's overlooked in the rush to the checkride: that time is reserved for enjoying the thrill of flying. Pick something fun to do for .4 or .5 hours. Go fly over your house or your old school or that park you like to jog in. Go check out the boats on the lake you like to fish in. Go see where that country road you've driven by a hundred times but never turned down goes. Go do whatever, as long as it's something fun you want to do (but remember to stay inside your designated practice area) and make an effort to stay reasonably within PTS standards while you're doing it. It's not a waste of time, because you'll be learning as you go in the most effective way: a way that is so sneaky you won't realize you're practicing. Flying over your old school/house/other objects teaches you ground referencing, flying down that back road teaches you about crabbing, and so on. All of them teach you about pilotage, which is a powerful enough skill that it got the mail from one coast to the other in planes that weren't nearly as nice as your trainer, and if you're holding your altitude while you're going there, you're turning that straight-or-level into straight-and-level, too.

So now the hard part has started. The good news is that the fun part has also started too! You won't have me in the right seat yapping away, but you also won't have me in the right seat to say, "That one could have been better. Let's do another one." That's on you now. You may think you're getting away with being sloppy since there's no one in the plane to tell you to do it again, but it will come around to bite you in the butt later on. Before you get signed off to take your checkride, I (and every other CFI in the world) will go up on at least a couple of simulated checkrides with you to make sure you pass. Remember, the FAA keeps track of our pass rate, so we're putting our reputation and certificate on the line every time we sign someone off, so you're going to have to be good before you'll even get past us, much less an examiner.

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and thus different maneuvers that are easy and hard for them to do. The temptation is to practice the things you're already good at because they're easy. That is exactly the wrong approach. As I pointed out in my Bob Hoover post, the way to get the most bang for your buck is to practice what you're not good at until you can turn your weaknesses into your strengths. If you go up and nail a maneuver on your first try, move on to the next one so you can devote your money and mental energy to more productive practice. Congratulate yourself on starting to really get this whole flying thing down, though!

There are two things you should be practicing on every flight: emergency procedures and slow flight. I'm going to devote a whole post on the first one as part of how to practice for free, because you don't have to pull the engine every time to practice emergencies, and engine-outs aren't the only type of emergency you may have (in fact, it's by far the least likely emergency you'll encounter, if you ever encounter one at all). You can spend some useful, free time practicing your emergency flows and checklists before you ever turn the key and start the Hobbs meter spinning.

Slow flight should be done every time, though, for two reasons: first, you're in slow flight on every single flight when you come in to land, so that maneuver you're practicing miles from the airport a few thousand feet above the ground will, believe it or not, help you out when you're 500 feet up and half a mile away from it. Second, and probably even more importantly, is that nothing teaches you to listen to what the airplane is saying to you better than slow flight. You're intentionally bringing it to one edge of its envelope, so you have to be its master.

In cruise flight, the plane is whispering to you, but in slow flight, it's screaming at you. Being able to understand its foreign vocabulary when it's speaking at the top of its voice makes it much easier to understand it when it's whispering, and no maneuver has as much crossover value for learning how to truly fly an airplane as slow flight does. Sure, slow flight scares some people because you're bringing it right to the edge of the stall and leaving it there as long as possible, so if you push it a little too hard you might end up stalling. So what? That just gives you a chance to practice a stall recovery and is immediate feedback that you need to be a little smoother on the controls or a little more on top of that throttle. If you're still too afraid to stall a plane on your own, you're not alone. However, it means I (or your CFI) didn't do my job right so far, so you need to haul my butt back in the plane until you know you have what it takes to recover, and you should probably yell at me for having failed you back then. (Of course, I'm exaggerating for effect, because it is natural to be comfortable with something when you know the sandbag in the right seat will bail you out if you really get in over your head but be a lot more timid when he or she isn't there anymore. Nevertheless, if you have an instructor worth their salt, they wouldn't have moved past stalls in your training if they didn't think you could recover, even if you may not think so. So you can, whether you fully believe that or not.)

While going out to the practice area, pick an altitude and heading and focus on maintaining it the whole time. If you pick 2,500 and 270, don't just go up to 2,800 and say, "Well, I'm at 2,800, so that's going to be my cruising altitude." (It sounds like I'm being sarcastic when I say that, but the next person to say that to me won't be the first.) Practice climbing to your selected altitude at a constant rate one flight, then practice climbing at a constant airspeed the next.

If your heading is going to be 270, then maintain it using the compass instead of the DG. Using the compass makes you a better pilot, because it's much harder to stay on heading using a compass than a DG, and you'll always be prepared in case your vacuum system or pretty glass panel goes kaput. On every other flight, pick your heading using a point out the window and fly to that without using any instruments at all. That's what turns you into an aviator instead of a pilot.

Your order may vary, but here's a general order I recommend people use for practice when they're out on their own in the practice area:

Steep turns (both directions, progressing to the one that gives you the most trouble once you've started to get really good)
Slow flight
Power-off stalls (all flap settings)
Power-on stalls (any flap settings you might typically use on takeoff)
Emergency descent to 1000 AGL
Continue descent to appropriate ground reference maneuver altitude
Turns around a point/S-turns
Simulated engine out
Climb to appropriate cruising altitude and use pilotage/dead reckoning to find something fun to fly to
Go back to home airport and land
If landing went well, make it a touch-and-go
Pull power to idle at midfield and practice engine out on your home turf
Taxi to ramp and shut down
Grin and pat yourself on the back for being one step closer to your goal!

You won't accomplish this entire list every flight, and it's not designed or intended to all be done every flight: there just isn't enough time to do all of them and still devote enough time to useful practice. I recommend "sliding the window" down the list each flight. For example,

Flight 1
Steep turns (several in each direction)
Slow flight
Power-off stalls (several)
Pilotage/dead reckoning fun

Flight 2
Steep turns (as necessary, but fewer than last time)
Slow flight
Power-off stall (one or two)
Power-on stalls (several)
Emergency descent
Pilotage/dead reckoning fun

Flight 3
Slow flight out to practice area once you've reached your cruising altitude
Power-on stalls
Emergency descent
GRM (ground reference maneuver) of your choice
Pilotage/dead reckoning fun

Flight 4
Slow flight out to practice area once you've reached your cruising altitude
Power-on stall (one or two)
Put plane in landing configuration and descend at approach airspeed to 1000 AGL
GRM that you didn't do last time
Simulated engine out
Pilotage/dead reckoning fun

And so on. Remember, these are just suggestions, and although I have both a rhyme and a reason for tying them together the way I do (for example, most airplanes tend to gain altitude in power-on stalls, so why not practice while you're climbing until you get high enough that you can practice getting back down either in a hurry or like you were coming in on final?), there's nothing that says you can't adjust them to suit your needs--in fact, that's exactly what you should be doing, since you're now PIC. These are routines I've found to be generally efficient and helpful, but you're the one who has to make them specific to your needs.

Once you're signed off to solo, you're given the power to take control of your training to an even greater extent than before. However, with great power comes great responsibility, and it's now more your responsibility to ensure you're training efficiently and effectively. Your CFI doesn't leave the picture, but when they sign those solo boxes off they transition to a mentor role instead of the mama bird role you've been used to having them in up until now. So go leave the nest, spread your wings, and enjoy this new stage of your flying experience!

They don't build airports like this anymore

One of the bigger impediments to growing the pilot population is that airports have lost much of their aesthetic charm. Airports are not the solitary, half-empty expanses of corrugated aluminum and concrete they all-too-often are today because of any of the tired, worn-out reasons the naysayers trot out over and over again: high fuel prices, ridiculously expensive aircraft, overly complex regulations, [insert your favorite gripe here], and so on. Airports are empty today because of what airports look like today.

Despite the claims that video games, social media, etc. are out-competing real airplanes for the attention of our youngsters, flying itself still has the same magical charm to them that has captured people for the last century. I've seen the excited young eyes too many times on discovery flights, dual flights given as birthday gifts, at air shows and Learn to Fly Day events to be worried about whether aviation still captures them: I know it does. The charm is still there, but we need to recapture the beauty of flight in part by recapturing the beauty of our airports.

Flying is still a dream of a huge number of people; in fact, if everyone who has told me they wanted to learn to fly actually started taking lessons tomorrow, it would be a catastrophe for me: I'd be working 24/7 immediately and indefinitely. Airports are the vehicle that dream moves around in, and just as no one dreams of driving a beat-up, rusty, run-down 1965 Mustang, we need to make airports a restored, nicely-purring, gleaming classic Mustang of their dreams. Do that, and we'll finally start going somewhere again.

Continuing the beater car analogy, let's borrow an idea from the TV show Pimp My Ride and start putting playgrounds with kid-sized runways and airplane swing sets and control towers with slides coming out the side of them just outside the ramp fence. That way kids can run-up while they run up and slip while they slip.

Compare the sterile barbed-wire-and-scary-sign look of a typical modern airport to the beautiful Art Deco terminal, complete with community office space, a doctor's office, post office, and fancy restaurant of New Orleans's Lakefront (formerly Shushan) Airport.

I'm not saying we need to completely rebuild our airports; a coat of paint and a parking lot that has been resurfaced in the last 30 years would be nice, but the single biggest change (and one of the cheapest) would be to replace the sign at the gate that typically says something like "Visitors will be shot on sight, then drawn and quartered, hung, and served as lunch at the next Cannibals Society meeting" with something containing simple, friendly instructions on where to go/who to talk to/etc. to get through the gate. Something like, "Visitors: please push the button to the left and we'll be happy to let you through the gate. Then take an immediate right and say hi to the person at the desk, who will then tell you how to get to where ever it is you need to go." This would have the happy side effect of completely enraging the reality-challenged desk jockeys at the TSA, whose actions show that they think the only secure airport is a closed airport. That makes it a worthy goal all on its own.

Airports are not a reverse jail designed to keep out the unwashed masses. We need to stop making them look like they are. Despite the imposing fence and/or decaying look, I have found almost everywhere that if you actually go through that gate, you'll find friendly people who are more than willing to talk about flying and might even give you a free ride! But don't just take my word for it: this woman is proving just how welcoming the typical airport denizen tends to be by hitching rides all across the country:

Friday, March 8, 2013

This six-year-old girl says all there is to say about flying

Low and slow in a Champ, grins and giggles... this is what flying is all about:

Bonus: here's a five-year-old girl actually flying a Cirrus:

She looks pretty happy about it, too! Flying has that effect on everyone. Not just elementary school girls, not just on old white guys, not just on [insert demographic here]. It touches EVERYONE with an inexpressible feeling of freedom. I could spend another thousand words going into what this feeling truly is, but a thousand books have already been penned on it and they still don't get to the core of it. It is one of those events that you can only understand by experiencing it.

So go take someone up flying and let them experience it for themselves. We can't all create our own Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and better the lives of thousands at once, but we can be thousands of people changing the lives of a handful, which ends up just as good in the end.

This goes for you, too. Go take yourself up flying. Even if you're not a pilot and have never been in a small plane before, you can still take yourself up flying! You almost definitely have an airport within half an hour of you that has a flight school. Just walk in and ask for a Discovery Flight. Most of them have a special (usually along the lines of $99 for a half hour in the air), and at most places you don't even need an appointment. Just walk in the door and say, "Hey, I want to go flying." You don't have to sign up for lessons or even pretend to be interested in lessons: just walk in and away you'll go. But don't be surprised if you end up interested in lessons afterward!

If you're sincerely not interested in learning to fly yourself or have some major medical issue that would preclude you from getting a license but you know someone who might be interested, you can still take them up flying! Most places have gift certificates that are good for either a certain amount of money or a discovery flight. All you have to do is call them and they'll walk you through the simple process of getting a gift certificate. A discovery flight is quite likely one of the most unforgettable gifts you'll ever give, and it doesn't get outgrown like clothes or worn out like shoes. Once that flight is taken, it stays with that person forever. I've talked to people who have been flying for 50 years and they still remember their first flight and who made it possible for them. Depending on the plane, it's quite likely possible that you can even sit along in the back seat if you'd like.

Discovery flights are always my favorite flight to give. Sure, a lot of instructors don't like them because we get paid very little for them (by the time you add in all the unpaid ground time and only .5 hours of paid flight time, it tends to end up being less than minimum wage). I, however, enjoy Discovery Flights because in that short amount of time in the air, I get to teach a lesson that's not on any syllabus anywhere: that the sheer joy of flying makes life worth living. If I can teach them that most important lesson on that "noninstructional" flight, teaching them all the things they need to know to pass a checkride is a piece of cake for both of us.