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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Learn to Fly and Get College Credit: AVIA 111 FAQ

Q: Is the AVIA 111 course for me?

A: Yes.

Q: Could you be a little more specific?

A: Yes. Since this is the first class you'd probably take in aviation, it covers basic principles of flight, aviation regulations, elementary weather, and other very general topics. You don't need any experience around airplanes at all, and it doesn't matter if you can't tell an aileron from a snickerdoodle--although you'll definitely know which one not to take a bite out of by the time the class is over.

You don't even have to want to be a pilot to take this class! This class is a great choice for you if any of the following apply to you:

  • You're just looking for a fun, rewarding elective to add to your transcript. I can't promise that it will be the easiest one, but it will probably be one of the most enjoyable ones you ever take.
  • You've been curious about maybe learning to fly someday and want to see if you have what it takes.
  • Your child, spouse, or significant other is an aviation nut and you would like to be able to talk with them about it in an informed manner.
  • You hate flying! Knowledge is power, and understanding the basic principles of flying will allow you to be a much more relaxed airline passenger. Knowing that loud THUMP just after takeoff is just the landing gear coming up or understanding just how the pilots up front still know exactly where they're at even though you can't see out your side window will help you overcome a fear of flying. In fact, many psychologists recommend a class like this one as part of therapy for patients with flying phobias.
If you do want to fly for a living or go into air traffic control, unmanned aerial systems ("drones"), etc., this class is applicable to you, too, since it prepares you for the first of many exams you'll have to take throughout your career.

Q: Are there prerequisites to take this class?

A: No. While the physics of flight is so complex that NASA nerds still study it, you don't need to know more than very basic physics to fly an airplane, and even those physical principles I break down into the simplest terms possible. You don't need to know advanced thermodynamics of the internal combustion engine to drive to the grocery store, and you don't need to know advanced aerodynamics to understand flight. The only prerequisite is a sense of adventure.

Q: What is the class like?

I teach this class almost completely differently than any of the 4-year colleges or online programs. Everyone else teaches it the same dull way that it's been taught since World War II. That method was a rushed effort to do something that had never been done before: train a mass of pilots in a hurry. It was designed to weed out those who couldn't cram in a large mass of obscure technical details in a short amount of time. The materials, lectures, and methods have unfortunately changed little since then.

From the start, I have had my own fresh approach to aviation. I ditched the old, dry textbook that was used only because "that's the one we've always used" and replaced it with one that is more fun and more informative. I combine the classroom with this blog, my Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, interactive online mini-courses, an end-of-semester project, tours of an ATC facility or other aviation office, and a visit to the airport to see, smell, and touch a real plane. I also tossed the rote memorization and dusty mathematical formulas and replaced them with learning to think instead of barfing up a meaningless answer.

It's not an easy class, and just like any college course there is a lot of work to do. However, it's the most fun you'll ever have working so hard. By the end of the semester, most of my students have the same seemingly-contradictory comments: "There's so much to learn," and "This is the best class I've ever had."

If you're not having fun learning about flying, you're doing it wrong. And along the way, even if you never take flying lessons you'll end up with a way of thinking about things that will serve you well the rest of your life.

Q: Is there math involved?
A: No. If you can add, subtract, multiply, and divide, you're all set. The most complex math problem you'll get is something along the lines of, "If your plane burns 9 gallons an hour and it will take you 2 hours to get there, how much fuel will you consume?" If you can do 9 x 2 = 18 on a regular calculator, you're qualified. Pocket protectors are totally optional.

Q: How much does it cost?

A: Since this is a college course, the cost is based on LCCC's tuition rate. For a 4 credit hour course, that currently works out to $473.36, which can be covered by financial aid if you receive it. The textbook is approximately $45-65, depending on what format you prefer (paper or ebook) and where you buy it.

LCCC has a flat-rate tuition scale, so anything from 13-18 credit hours costs the same. This means that if you're already taking classes, AVIA 111 may cost you nothing extra to add to your schedule!

If you're over the age of 60, you may be able to take this class for free! Please keep in mind that I do not handle the paperwork for this, so you'll need to contact LCCC's Center for Lifelong Learning for more information on what you need to do. I've instructed plenty of students over 60 (I've had students range in age all the way from 8 to 80), so you're never to old to learn to fly!

Q: Do I have to buy a textbook?

A: The textbook of record per the syllabus is Rod Machado's Private Pilot Handbook. This is the book that Embry-Riddle and many other colleges use for their introductory aviation classes. He has an accompanying workbook that is highly recommended but not required.

That said, while I do tend to use the book to remind myself where I am during lectures, I am not one of those instructors who treats you like you can't read and just teaches right out of the book. You will probably find it slightly easier to keep up in class if you have a copy, but if you already have a textbook from somewhere else (Jeppesen, King Schools, etc.) or prefer to download the FAA's official Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge and Airplane Flying Handbook for free from their website, feel free to do so. Which ones you read is less important than that you actually read them.

Q: I have already started my flight training or I'm already a pilot. Can I or should I take this course?

A: Absolutely. I've had many students who got their license, flew for a while, and then had life get in the way for 5, 10, or 20+ years. Once flying gets in your blood, it never gets out, and if you've been away from flying for a long period of time, this class will help you brush the dust off that old knowledge and shine it up with the new things that may have changed while you were gone.

AVIA 111 also works well if you're a student pilot who has started taking lessons. In fact, several of my ground school students started out as my flight students. The hours you already have in the air will help you understand the concepts in class, and the things you learn in class will help you understand why you do the things you do. Flight training takes care of the "how" part of flying, and ground school takes care of the "why". The two of them work together to develop you into a whole pilot.

Q: Is AVIA 111 offered online?

A: Not at this time. While I'm all for making this an online class so you can learn on your own schedule, there is a LOT of work involved in turning a classroom lecture-based class into a fully online section, much of which involves getting it approved by the powers that be. It's not just a matter of uploading some PowerPoint slides and pretending it's a class, and the continuing budget cuts in higher education that we've been suffering the last several years make this process even longer.

If you prefer to learn on your own schedule but still want college credit, contact me and I'll see if we can work something out along the lines of a series of independent study classes. There are disadvantages in doing it that way (especially if you're planning to transfer), but if your circumstances absolutely preclude you from attending a lecture-based class, I'd much rather see you have the opportunity to learn about the wonder of flight in some way rather than none.

Q: Do I have to (or get to) fly in this class?

A: No. Learning to fly involves two parallel tracks: a ground part and a flight part. As the name of the class suggests, the Private Pilot Ground School covers the ground part. There is no flying required and flying is no part of your grade. You will have the chance to see, touch, and sit in a small plane as part of the class, but it will be in the hangar with the engine off.

However, you can take an introductory flight (or, if you're already taking lessons, continue them) outside of class, either with me or anyone else. This will have no effect on your grade at all, except perhaps to help make what we talk about in class make more sense. This is not included in the cost of the course and LCCC takes no part and no responsibility for you flying. 

Q: Who teaches this class?

A: Me. I'm a commercial pilot and certificated flight and ground instructor. I have over 2,000 hours of flight time in dozens of different airplanes, from small two-seat light sport aircraft to big multi-engine aircraft. I've written extensively on a large number of aviation topics, and the only thing I like as much as flying is teaching others to fly!

This is an actual college class, which means that unlike many of the weekend ground schools available, you'll have an actual college professor instead of a weekend pilot teaching a class for a couple of bucks on the side or a brand-new flight instructor who barely knows more about flying a plane than you do.

Q: What is the coursework like?

A: Since the FAA publishes the questions for their written exams, you can actually see every single question I would possibly ask you on a quiz or test before you even take the class by buying a study guide like Rod Machado's Private Pilot Workbook, any of dozens of different test prep guides from different publishers, or exam prep software from vendors like

There are also 6 self-paced mini-courses throughout the class that you'll take online. Each one takes approximately 60-90 minutes to complete.

There is also a flight planning project that is due at the end of the course. You can see that by checking out Come Chair Fly Away With Me. It may look complicated now, but that's because it ties together all the neat little things you'll learn throughout the preceding three months, so that by the time it's due, it will all make perfect sense.

Q: Why should I take this class instead of one of those weekend/online/etc. classes from somewhere else?

A: If you want college credit or are planning to pursue aviation as a career, this is a no-brainer.

If you're just taking it for personal reasons, then this class may still be a better option for you than a canned class available elsewhere because it is personally tailored toward you. There are many "class-in-a-box" courses available, and many of them (particularly the King Schools ones) are very well done. However well produced they are, though, they all suffer from the problem that they have to be written to a one-size-fits-all audience. This means that they cannot know what material you're struggling with, what material you find easy, and can't give you immediate feedback, so they'll often spend too much time on some topics and not enough on others.

The first day of class, I ask the students in the class why they're taking it and what their career goals are. I then keep these answers in mind throughout the semester as I'm lecturing, which allows me to point out when something will be of particular interest to someone.

Another big advantage is that you can use financial aid to cover the cost of the class.

Q: What do get I when I pass this course?

A: You get an endorsement to take the FAA written exam. While most instructors give this as a scribbled, handwritten note in a logbook, I give this endorsement as a certificate suitable (and intended) for framing. (Don't worry: if you take the written, they make a copy and you get to keep the original.) Completing your first step in flight is an accomplishment you should be proud of, since it is a step that less than 1% of people ever take in their entire life.

Q: Do I have to take the FAA written?

A: No. This class prepares you for it and qualifies you to take it once you successfully complete the course, but you don't have to take it and has no effect on your grade. In fact, since you don't get your endorsement to take the written until after the class is over, there's no way I could even make it have an effect on your grade. The official FAA written exam is administered through two organizations: CATS or PSI (LaserGrade) and requires a fee which is not part of the course.

Q: Do you offer this kind of class for an instrument rating?

A: Yes. LCCC does offer a class designed for those pursuing an instrument rating: TECN 196. I teach that one too. It is only offered when we get a sufficient number of students enrolled, so if you want to take it, contact the Engineering Technologies department at (440) 366-4005 and let them know.

Q: Do I have to be an LCCC student to take this class?

A: Yes. Fortunately, it's an easy process to register as a student. You don't have to take a bunch of entrance exams and all that if you just want to take this one course, either. LCCC's Registration department has more information about taking classes just for personal interest.

Q: What other aviation classes does LCCC offer?

A: TECN 196 is the Instrument Rating Ground School. We have also put together a class for those interested in a commercial pilot certificate. Both of these classes are only offered if there is sufficient enrollment, so contact the Engineering Technologies department at (440) 366-4005 and let them know you're interested.

In the long term, I'd love to expand LCCC's aviation program into offering classes in several departments such as history, political science, economics, and literature with listings for things like History of Aviation; Aviation in the World Wars; Aviation's Influence on Commerce; an English literature class with reading from Gann, Buck, Saint-Exupéry, Lindbergh, Earhart, etc.; and an applied technology series of courses where students build their own kitplane. However, this is a long process, and it also requires a demonstration that people would be willing to take that sort of class. If any of those sound good, please contact the Engineering Technologies department at (440) 366-4005 and let them know your thoughts on growing the program. Aviation's impact on modern life is so large that it's hard to find some facet of life that it hasn't touched.

We may be able to arrange an individualized study course if there is a particular topic that really fires your interest and that you'd like to learn more about. Perhaps you watched The Aviator and you'd like to learn more about Howard Hughes and the Spruce Goose. Maybe the old days of "real pilots" flying rickety biplanes full of mail fascinate you, or the modern days of "cool pilots" flying stealth planes full of bombs halfway around the world... If it's a worthwhile topic, we can probably put together an individualized studies class for you. Beware: individualized studies courses are only for you if you meet certain academic prerequisites and standing are good at directing your own learning, must be approved by the department, and can only be repeated a limited number of times. They're good if you have a "square peg" interest that doesn't fit into your "round hole" degree. With the way the college budget is being shaken lately, though, individualized studies may or may not be an option, unfortunately.

Q: I have a question that wasn't answered here. Where can I get more information?

A: LCCC's Engineering Technologies department is a good place to start. They're available at (440) 366-4005. If they can't answer your question, they can give you my faculty email address. I would be happy to answer your questions, but I can't post my email address here because of spambots.

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.

Making Sense of Aviation Weather 2: "T" is for "Terminal"

Last time, I promised you a warning about TAFs, so this post will be terminal to you.

Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts aren't as lethal as they may sound, as long as you keep in mind that "terminal" means just that: the terminal area of the airport the forecast is for. That's logical enough, but it just leads to another question: what does "terminal area" mean?

The answer is simple but important. The terminal area is a ring 5 nautical miles around the airport. Five miles isn't much at all! In fact, it's such a small area that at a place like Cleveland-Hopkins (KCLE), the runways stretch across almost 30% of the forecast circle:

The inner ring of Cleveland's Class B airspace matches up quite nicely with the area contained in a TAF. The second ring around it also gives a good idea of the second area that is sometimes contained in a TAF: the "vicinity".

The VC (or "vicinity") area is another ring that goes out from 5 miles to 10 miles. It doesn't line up as perfectly in this excerpt because KCLE's second ring of CLass B only extends out 8.5 miles instead of 10, but it's close enough to bring home the main point: there's not much area contained in that circle.

So what? How much different can the weather actually be from 10 to 15 miles? A lot different, actually. Take a look at this picture I took standing on the ramp at Lorain County Regional Airport (visible as the magenta strip at the center-left of the chart above) one day:

The camera is pointed almost directly toward KCLE, and that is a thunderstorm parked almost directly over Cleveland-Hopkins while I'm standing underneath calm blue skies only 14 miles away.

(In case you're wondering why I took a picture of a rather weak thunderstorm, it's because I took this on December 21, 2011, only four days before Christmas. This is so rare in Cleveland that it qualifies as a freak storm; usually by this time of the year the ground is covered in snow, not thunder.)

This isn't some fluke occurrence that I'm trying to blow up into a bigger thing than it actually is. Many places have their own peculiar weather patterns that local pilots are used to but pilots just passing through may not know about. Around Cleveland, it's extremely common for it to be nice on the west side and IFR on the east side due to the effects of Lake Erie.

In fact, as luck would have it, while I've been writing this post, a good example of this phenomenon has popped up. The window of my study faces almost due west, and the sun has been slowly sliding down the sky as it settles in for a beautiful orange and blue sunset framed by a few fringes of thin clouds. While I waited for the above image to upload, I went into the kitchen to top off my coffee. The kitchen windows face almost due east (toward Cleveland) and the scene through them was the polar opposite: angry gray, moisture-laden clouds choke the sky completely, suffused with an oddly-contrasting orange light shining on them from the sun settling peacefully on the other side of the same sky.

The radar shows why there's such a huge difference between east and west. Unsurprisingly, it's a textbook example of Lake Effect and shows the pattern of weather that takes place time after time around here:

The west side is clear (the circular glob of yellow and green in the center can be ignored since it's just ground clutter interfering with the radar site) and the east is about to get another visit from Old Man Lake Effect.

So keep in mind when you're doing your flight planning that a TAF is only a snapshot forecast at a very specific point in space and time. It only covers that airport, not that region or state as a whole. Nonetheless, TAFs are an extremely useful part of your weather picture and will serve you well as long as you use them well, so don't let this discourage you from using them. Just like Lucky Charms are an important part of a balanced breakfast, TAFs are an important part of the balanced weather picture you should consume before you hop on that magic carpet.

I'd love to hear about any weather quirks your own home area may have that might make you take your local forecast with a grain of salt. Leave a comment below and share them with me!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Really Short Field Technique: Nailing your spot every time

There's another new video over at YouTube by your friendly CFI today:

As the title might lead you to believe, it deals with short field landings. Don't let the FSX deter you: the principles are the same whether you're landing on a simulated runway or a real one, and recording it in FSX allows you to see it from multiple angles so you can connect what's going on in the cockpit to how it looks outside. In fact, I could--and actually do plan to Real Soon Now--devote an entire post or series of posts on how flight simulation has real benefits in flight training (even if you're already a pilot), but let's get to the meat of today's topic: landing where you want to, not where the airplane wants to.

(Actually, it's probably more accurate to say that you're not so much landing where you want to, you're convincing the airplane that where it wants to land just happens to be exactly where you wanted to be in the first place.)

It is an unfortunate but eternal truth that whenever anyone else is in the plane, the skill of the pilot is judged only by the quality of their landing. The landing itself (unless it is extraordinarily bad) is such a small part of what makes a successful flight that it has almost nothing to do with how good a pilot the person is. Nevertheless, nonpilots don't know all the little things that have to come together to have a good flight. You'd think that that would mean that pilots, since they do know about all those little details, would be less critical and more understanding, but they're even worse because right after the wheels touch the pavement they're thinking, "I could have made a better landing than that."

Short field landings are not going to be the gentlest ones you ever make. On the off chance you do make a greaser of a short field (it happens, though rarely), it has more to do with being lucky than good. That's because in a short field approach and landing, there are a lot of things working against you. Don't worry if you have some plunkers: what's important is getting down and stopped. In fact, when I'm teaching short field landings and the person taking the lesson really lands it smoothly, my response isn't usually, "Wow, that was great!" but something more like, "Were you trying to land on the other 1000-foot markers?" as I point out that they're several hundred feet past where they were supposed to touch down. Those two things (landing smoothly and landing long) tend to be connected.

What are all those things that are working against you? Well, first, you don't have the extra cushion of energy to milk it down to the ground. If you do have a lot of extra energy, you're doing it wrong.

Second, short field approaches are steeper than a normal approach. Less airspeed means the wings are producing less lift. When you combine less lift with lower groundspeed, you end up much steeper than normal, which makes it harder to judge the timing of your flare. To make matters even worse, in order to maintain a lower airspeed, the nose will be somewhat higher than you're used to.

Third, the flare itself is a more aggressive maneuver. In a normal landing, the flare is a gradual process as you go from slightly nose down through level and on, a few degrees at a time, to a nose-high attitude. In a short field, you've kind of already started the flare, and the lower airspeed that makes the wings produce less lift also makes the elevator that much less effective.

Despite all that, short fields aren't actually all that difficult, and I almost always find that after a student has mastered them, their regular landings are greatly improved as well. That's because the key to a good regular landing is a good approach, and the key to a good approach is airspeed control. Short field landings make you better at controlling airspeed because the margin for slop isn't there any more.

The second key to a good short field is developing your eye for your aiming spot. (While this is somewhat important during a normal landing, it becomes critical in a short field one.) The aiming spot will never be the same as your landing spot unless you fly the plane straight into the ground, in which case the aiming point converts to a point of impact. How do you know when you're aiming at the right spot? When the point in the windshield that doesn't move up or down is just before the runway threshold (in a real short field landing) or the point on the runway you've been told to land on (usually the 1000-foot markers if the runway has them).

Notice how in the video at the 4:30 point the O in the -->O<-- I drew doesn't move up or down and is far enough before the threshold that I'll end up with no flying left in the wings right at the beginning of the runway. (Naturally, you don't want to be so far away that you stop flying before you reach the runway at all. That's why the Practical Test Standards gives you 200 feet after, but ZERO feet before.)

Watch that part several times if you need to, and don't feel bad if it takes you a while to figure out where that spot is in your own flying: I personally found that one of the hardest things to master, and didn't start to get all that good at it until long after I had my license. Then again, that's probably because my own flight instructor never told me what an aiming point was and how to know where to put it, so if you get this down you'll be ahead of the game. If in your own flying it seems that there is no spot that doesn't move, it's 99.9% likely that's because your nose is wandering up and down. Focus on your pitch and your point will come into focus magically.

I've also created another video to help you find your aiming point. This one is devoted just to that, so it might be easier for you:

These two A's (Airspeed and Aiming) will, if you take the time to practice them mindfully, be the hammer that allows you to nail that spot all day. If it has worked for you, leave me a comment and let me know. If it hasn't, then leave me a comment so I can try to make it clearer for you. In any case, have fun and happy landings!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Making Sense of Aviation Weather 1: Wind isn't just something politicans break

For me, one of the best things about being a pilot is being able to be up where the weather happens. Although I may like this so much because I've always been fascinated by the sky and the weather ballet that takes place in it (the first thing I can remember wanting to be as a kid was a TV weatherman), your mileage may vary and you don't have to be a weather geek to become a pilot. All it takes is a basic understanding of the general patterns that might affect you, especially once you start going distant places in style.

Understanding the weather isn't nearly as hard as some people try to make it out to be. Some people enjoy throwing out big terms like "synoptic" (a 50-cent word for "the big picture"), "hydrometeor" (a two-dollar word for raindrop), "adiabatic lapse rate" (you go up, the thermometer goes down), and--a perennial favorite among many who confuse polysyllabariatrics (big fat words) with actually knowing what they're talking about--"skew-T log-P diagrams" (a chart that is the weather equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot in that people look at them and try to decide if what they see is a bat, a skiing elephant, or their mother, then combine that with a handful of tea leaves and a rubber band to produce a forecast for yesterday's weather).

Despite my teasing of the users of skew-T log-P (often ever-so-helpfully shortened to just "skew-T") diagrams, which are actually very useful if you know how to interpret them in the same way that knowing how to rebuild a car's engine from scratch is useful if you ever need to drive to the grocery store, weather isn't big words or mysterious forces that make it gloomy one day and brilliant the next. Weather is one thing: weather is what happens when air masses squish into one another.

Even on days I'm not flying, I still check the weather out of old pilot habit. This weather check begins in a very unorthodox way, and I doubt you'd ever hear this way from your typical flight instructor, but it has served me well. Instead of first going to the "normal" weather sources like, (I like WU better than the Weather Channel's website because it is much faster to load, is less cluttered with irrelevant fluff, and it's easier to dig deeper into raw data if I'm in the mood to do so), DUAT/DUATS, etc., my first stop is to a website that wasn't even created for meteorology: the Wind Map at

The winds for October 19, 2013. Note the massive flow over the center of the country and the relatively lighter line stretching from Columbus, OH to Dallas, TX.

The Wind Map, once you learn to get a feel for it, tells you more useful information more quickly than a traditional surface depiction chart. This is pretty impressive considering that the creator calls it a "personal art project" and asks that it not be used to, among other things, fly a plane. But that's OK, because this is far from the only thing I'll use before I'll fly. It's definitely not something you'd use to make a go-no decision for anything at all, and there are a lot of things this can't tell you, many of which are very important (little things like ceilings and icing conditions).

What it is really good for is getting a feel for the big picture at a glance. "But isn't that what surface analysis charts and weather depiction charts are for," you might quite rightly ask. Sure they are, and you'd be crazy not to look at those before slipping the surly bonds of Earth. And, if you're planning to leave the traffic pattern (which means you'll be "not in the vicinity of an airport"), FAR 91.103 says it's not just a good idea to look at them, it's the law.

"Then what's the point of looking at this? Sure, it's got a trippy animation, but all I see are a bunch of wiggly lines. And this isn't even on the FAA written," you may complain. Sure it's not, but keep these two things in mind:

  • Every pilot that died by flying into weather they weren't prepared for had passed the FAA written
  • Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts, as Einstein probably didn't say
Where do the surface analysis charts come from anyway? At the most fundamental level, they come from what the air is doing, so I think that looking at the "official", "FAA-approved" sources first is putting the cart before the horse.

This is because where cold air comes barging through, we have a cold front. When warm air and cold air meet and fight each other to a stalemate, we have a stationary front. Where we have a low pressure system, we probably (but not always) have bad weather, but we always have air spinning around it counterclockwise, and vice-versa for a high pressure system.

Knowing just those basics, we can actually tell what the surface analysis will show before we even look at it, just by looking at the wind. Over Texas, we have a clockwise circle of air. That's a pretty obvious high pressure system. In the far north, we have a less obvious low pressure system. It's harder to see because the map cuts off at the border and only shows the southern half of the counterclockwise flow.

Over the middle of the country, wedged between the low to the north and the high to the south, we can see a huge flow of air being accelerated like a baseball between the two discs in a baseball pitching machine. It's flowing toward a line that stretches from around Columbus to Dallas, and east of Columbus it takes a sharp left and starts heading northward. This sharp, non-rotating turn means it's bumping into something else. It looks almost like water would if it hit a wall, doesn't it? And walls tend to be stationary things, right? Well then, it looks like we might have a stationary front there. Not only that, based on the sharpness of the turn and the speed of the wind that's hitting that wall, I'd venture a guess that there's going to be a decent case of the bumpies in that area. Think of all the splashing that happens when water hits a wall.

Now that we've taken a glance at the big picture, now we can move on and look at the "official" charts. Here's the surface analysis:

Look at that! A high pressure system right over Texas, a low pressure system over Minnesota, a stationary front over Ohio, and a cold front stretching from southern Ohio to the Texas coast. It's almost like magic, right? I mean, we knew that before we even looked at the chart.

Weather is what happens when air masses squish into each other, remember? And what's the technical, more elegant way of defining where are masses are squishing into each other? A "front". Developing this further, it's the cold fronts that tend to cause the most weather we care about as pilots.

So, can we extend our psychic superpowers even further and predict where the bad weather will be before looking at the next chart? Let's start by guessing that there's going to be cruddy weather from Ohio to eastern Texas because there's a distinctly lighter line of wind there on the wind map and there's a cold front there on the surface analysis chart. Now that we've taken a SWAG, here's the next one:

Feel like you're ready to start up a second career as a palm reader now? The blue dots all lined up like ducks in a row from Ohio to the Texas coast are cruddy weather. And what's more, there's something the wind map hinted at that the surface analysis chart can't easily depict: the orange wedges (interspersed with the green pitchforks) to the east of them show where the turbulence ("the bumpies" from five paragraphs ago) is.

Here's the satellite overlay so you can see the clouds:

And now, to really drive the point home, here's the original wind map overlaid with part of the map before last:

You can see that it only takes a few basic concepts combined with my First Law of Weather ("Weather is what happens when air masses squish into one another") to make people think you're a magician. OK, so it isn't quite that simple, but it's a big step in the right direction.

Weather is a lot like chess: the basic rules are very simple, but they lead to an almost infinite number of variations. That's why this post is called "Making Sense of Aviation Weather 1" and not "Everything You'll Ever Need to Know About Weather." However, most of those variations fall into some basic patterns, which means there will be plenty more to come on this topic in the future, and it also means you can get good at understanding the weather even if you can't tell a knight from a horsey. The next weather post will go into a warning about TAFs, and if you have any suggestions for topics you'd like covered or questions about what we just covered, please leave a comment below.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Five Years of Flying Fun

I condensed five years worth of aviation pictures I've taken into just over five minutes, made a video out of them, and put it on YouTube for your enjoyment.

Since there are so many, each of them gets less than three seconds, so I picked five of my favorites below. They are in no particular order, because each of them shares a different little sliver of the magic of looking at the Earth from above.

1: Somewhere between the Ohio River and the Tennessee River

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This was actually taken in northern Kentucky, but on this particular day the sky looked like this for a couple of hundred miles (all the way from the Ohio River to southern Tennessee) as a cold front was rolling along most of my flight path. The only reason I can even tell where it was taken at all is because I also took a picture of the GPS at the same time.

On the ground, this was an ugly, gray morning with nothing but a dull white cloudy glow to hint that there was still a sun somewhere out there. At 7,000 feet, it was just another beautiful day to be piloting a Cirrus across a bright, sunny, undercast sky.

2: Leaf peeping

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In the fall, going on a car ride to check out the colors is a pretty popular activity. Pilots are no different, except that instead of checking out a handful of trees at a time, we look down on acres upon acres of blazing biology.

Unfortunately, autumn foliage from the air is such a beautiful sight that it's extremely hard to fit all that majesty into photographs. I've taken dozens of fall flying pictures, and none of them do the season justice. This means you should definitely get in a plane and see this for yourself soon!

3: Niagara Falls

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Seeing Niagara Falls from the air suffers the same problem as autumn leaves: pictures don't quite contain all the wonder of the sight. One of the nice things about flying over the falls yourself instead of paying for one of those expensive helicopter tours is that you can go around and around them until you've soaked it all in, rather than just getting flown around on a quick pattern and dumped back on the ground.

Around many parks and other busy or sensitive areas there are some regulations you need to follow. Niagara Falls is one of those places. Fortunately, the rules are pretty simple, and listed in 14 CFR 93.71. They boil down to:
  • Stay at or above 3,500 feet (the helicopters are buzzing around below that)
  • Stay south of the bridge
  • Fly clockwise (so you don't have to worry about head-on traffic)
  • Give position reports on 122.05
 We got flight following from Buffalo Approach and they were very helpful, since they're used to having pilots fly around in circles in their airspace. When you're done, I highly recommend popping over to Niagara Falls International Airport since it's only a couple of miles away so you can eat at Como Restaurant at the Airport. Park at the FBO, walk down the hallway, and it's right across the street. They have good Italian food with reasonable prices.

4:  The beach at Treasure Island, Florida

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The Tampa Bay area is not the sanest place to drive, which is to be expected in a place that combines people who have been around since before there were cars with people who spend their entire lives baking their noggins in the sun. This makes seeing such a large area in only two weeks that much harder, so the wife and I rented a 172 and flew around the whole thing in 1.2 hours. Along the way, we got to see places like Three Rooker Island and Anclote Key that you can't get to by car at all.

Yes, that is our shadow right at the shoreline.

5: Looking down at the fireworks show, Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio

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There are some things that flying makes easier but that you could do in a car given enough time. There are other things, like seeing Niagara Falls in a helicopter, that you can do if you're willing to pay someone else a lot of money to whirl you around on a quick touristy trip that's over almost as quickly as it started. There are some things, however, that you can only see as a pilot. How else would you possibly watch a July 4th fireworks from above?

Bonus: Sunshine Skyway Bridge, Tampa Bay, Florida

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We flew a clockwise loop from Peter O. Knight Airport down almost to Sarasota, up the coast to New Port Richey, and back, so we were south of the bridge here and heading south-southwest. That's St. Petersburg in the background.