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Monday, January 27, 2014

Simpsons Sectional Silliness

These days, there is so much technology that makes the flight planning process easier, simpler, and more accurate. However, the aviation sectional chart is still at the core of every well-planned flight, even if the sectional is usually viewed via tablet or desktop computer than on paper now.

Some of the most fun things I've done in aviation weren't done in an airplane. Instead, they involved no cost at all except for the dozens of hours I've spent on them. That free fun was nothing more than looking at a sectional chart and imagining flights.

Sometimes it was trying to picture was some interesting geographical feature on the chart would look like from the air (or seeing what some strange place I came across on Google Maps would look like on a sectional). Other times it would be trying to figure out how to deal with an odd or challenging bit of terrain. Or it could be some oddly-shaped or complexly-layered airspace and trying to figure out why it was laid out that way.

Usually those diversions don't come from intentionally sitting down and randomly picking a place. Instead, they tend to come from tangents during flights I was actually planning at the time. For example, this straightforward fictitious flight came from an NDB that happened to catch my eye while I was planning a flight to St. Louis Regional Airport (KALN):

Click image to embiggen.

You don't even have to be able to read a sectional chart at all to see what's amusing about that short flight. All you need is a basic familiarity with the TV show The Simpsons. If you want to play around with a more interactive version, check it out on on the free flight-planning tool SkyVector here.

If you're not a fan of The Simpsons, you can always just fly to pizza instead. (Yes, I said fly TO pizza, not fly FOR pizza.) I just hope you don't like fancy ingredients, because it looks like all they have is plain.

Click image to embiggen.

Last but not least, I can't leave out the most famous of oddballs, the Crazy Woman VOR in Wyoming:

Do you have a strange or unusual place you've come across? Share it in the comments.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How that 747 landed at the wrong airport in November

Almost exactly two months ago to the day (November 21, 2013), I posted one of the first stories on the entire Internet giving my best speculation as to how a cargo-laden 747 landed at the wrong airport in Kansas. There were practically no details available at the time, so the only stories were that it happened, not how. While the Internet cried out, "Stupid pilots!", I laid out my reasons why a crew who was highly experienced and highly non-stupid could easily make a mistake like that.

The thrust of my speculation at the time was that it was probably due in large part to confirmation bias, where we (yes, you do it, I do it, everyone does it to a greater or lesser extent) give weight to information that supports our idea and discard that which doesn't. A couple of weeks ago, Aviation International News posted a story with more details about exactly what happened that night, and it turns out that confirmation bias played a large role in the incident, enhanced by some equipment issues that led the pilots to not fully trust the computer's report of their position.

As with almost all incidents in which humans are involved, the pilots did some things well and could have done some things better. And again, as with most incidents, there was no single huge mistake that led to what happened. It's nice to think of incidents and accidents as having one ultimate cause, since it makes for easy media stories and makes things simple to understand, but in real life that's almost never the case. Instead, incidents are almost always more like the famous proverb about a horseshoe nail leading to the loss of an entire kingdom.

In the "good" column we can chalk up a few things. First, the pilot was flying an instrument approach even though the weather was fine. Using all the equipment available to help you out is always a good idea, and following something relatively simple like the RNAV/GPS 19L approach helps reduce the cockpit workload by having the plan for getting to the airport already figured out ahead of time and then letting the autopilot fly that plan.

Second, the pilot reported that "previous VFR approaches to McConnell had often put him at a higher altitude than expected and that difficulties in picking out McConnell’s runway prompted him to make an instrument approach." This means that he is already thinking ahead of the aircraft, considering what to expect, and planning for it, all of which is a good thing. There is a time-honored aviation adage which goes, "Never let an airplane take you somewhere your brain hasn't already been."

Third, the problems they encountered with the FO's (First Officer—often called the "co-pilot" outside of aviation circles) primary flight display earlier in the flight led them to take its indications with a grain of salt. This is a good thing, because it means that instead of blindly trusting the computer and being highly-paid passengers with the two best seats on the plane, they were using their judgment and flying the aircraft with the assistance of the autopilot, not the insistence of it.

Although both the second and third items are usually very good things in most cases, in this rare instance they ended up contributing to the incident. Both of them would have been perfectly fine if there wasn't an airport with a similar runway configuration right along the flight path of their instrument approach, and we never would have heard of this crew.

Unfortunately, in this case, they increased the power of confirmation bias. Since the pilot had ended up higher than expected in the past, and since the avionics had had some issues earlier in the flight, when he saw a runway oriented in the direction he was heading for that the airplane was also high for, it was a perfectly human reaction to disengage the autopilot and head for it. That perfectly human thing is exactly what the pilot did.

The other pilot did not say anything as the flying pilot made his approach. It's easy to Monday-morning quarterback and ask why he didn't speak up, especially since in the United States, crews tend to have a much more equal hierarchy than Asian crews or even U.S. crews from the old days. While there are still some overbearing captains out there, they are for the most part long gone, as many of the CRM (Crew Resource Management) principles that are standard nowadays were figured out through hard experience and written in blood. This cockpit was probably very close to equal, since I would be surprised if both pilots did not have over 10,000 flight hours each, meaning even the "junior" member was no novice. (I have no figures for the actual amount, so this is a pure SWAG on my part.)

With that in mind, why didn't he say something? For the same reason you didn't when you were in a similar situation. Yes, I'm sure you can think of a time when someone was doing something that you weren't sure about, but you kept quiet because you thought to yourself, "They must know something that I don't."

There are a couple of things in the "not so good" category. Just as the second and third good ones above would normally be fine, these two things would normally not have been embarrassing to have overlooked. Then again, the whole reason for doing them is precisely to prevent something like this.

However, psychology still comes into play here. Even if they did brief the other airports in the vicinity and the lighting systems, it's still quite possible that it would have been just a rote recitation. After all, this wasn't the first time they had been here, and after doing something over and over, complacency sets in. The words come out of the mouth but don't enter the brain.

I pre-emptively addressed the ATC "failure" in the original post, but it's no surprise to see it here. I already pointed out in the original post that the tower controller probably wasn't watching the screen like a hawk. After all, it's not ATC's job to fly the plane to the correct airport. ATC's job is to keep planes from banging into each other, not to keep them from banging into the wrong patch of concrete.

I doubt Atlas Air's new requirement that pilots remain on an IAP (instrument approach procedure) until the final approach fix would have done anything at all to prevent this from occurring. After all, the pilots already didn't trust the avionics to tell them where the final approach fix was any more than they would have to tell them where the initial approach fix was. If they did trust the computers, then they wouldn't have abandoned the approach in the first place. It's a new requirement that sounds nice but doesn't address the cause.

In the end, I'm not saying that there was no way this couldn't have happened. In fact, there are more ways this could have not happened than there are ways that it could have. It took several factors all coming into alignment to make this take place. What I am saying is that these pilots were not idiots, they were two humans doing what humans do best: being imperfect. There is no procedural or technological solution that will ever conquer basic psychology, although that certainly won't keep people from trying. There are lessons to be learned from this, and we can all be happy that, unlike many aviation lessons, they are not ones written in blood.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Top 5 videos of 2013

The last post ran down the top 5 most popular posts of 2013 and promised to do the same for the videos on the YouTube channel. Without further ado, here they are:

2012 Surface Analysis Time-lapse

(There are two versions of this available for 2013 on the YouTube channel.)

2012 Weather Depiction Chart Time-lapse

(The 2013 version is also now available on the YouTube channel.)

Around the Pattern at KLPR with the Glass Turned Off

Stupid FSX Tricks: Cliff Diving at MM17

Really Short Field Landing Technique

Got something you think would be explained best with a video? Leave a comment and let me know!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Top 5 posts of 2013

The year 2013 was a great year for Keyboard & Rudder. It has picked up quite a few new readers (welcome!) and all of the five most popular posts have been from this year. In case you missed some, here is a quick rundown of the five most read posts of 2013:

A Symphony in the Sky: The beautiful complexity of a day's worth of air traffic

Some of this post's popularity comes from it being mentioned on StumbleUpon, which brings it a steady trickle of views. This one has two videos that show a day's worth of airplanes crossing the skies around the world. You don't realize just how incredibly many there are until you see all of them at once. When you do, it's a wonder that the ATC system works at all, much less works as well as it does.


Ten for 110: Ten things you might not know about the Wright brothers

Apparently this idea was good enough that the History Channel's website posted something with exactly the same title on the same day. Fortunately, I beat them by several minutes and our posts are quite different (mine focuses on basic aviation whereas theirs is for history buffs), so there's no doubt that that is just a coincidence.


U.S. Weather Patterns: The really big picture

In April, I had to have my gall bladder taken out, which means I had to miss a week of teaching my private pilot ground school class at Lorain County Community College, so I wrote this post to substitute for what I would have covered on one of those days. It turned out better than I'd hoped (both the surgery and the post).

The weather may seem like magic, but it operates on basic principles that are easy to grasp if you don't try to get into every little detail at once. That's what this post does: it takes a big picture view of the big picture so you can see just the most basic weather makers (fronts and high/low pressure centers) do their thing.

To make the post clearer and easier to understand, I created an animated surface depiction chart, since surprisingly no one had ever thought to do that before. It has turned out to be the most popular video on my YouTube channel, which was also something new for 2013. My next post will run down my top 5 there.


Subtropical Storm Andrea: A curiously clear look at the atmosphere at work

This started from stumbling across an incredible animated GIF from a Wikipedia article. Andrea wasn't a notable storm by any means, as she did little damage and stayed rather disorganized during her rather short lifetime, but her formation was a bit out of the ordinary, and the wave of dry air that spiraled around her and ended up compacting her into a minor storm was so curious that it deserved some attention. What Andrea lacked in punch she made up for in impressive photogenics.


How does a plane land at the wrong airport?

This was my first "real-time" post; from the time that 747 landed at the wrong airport in Kansas to the time I clicked "publish" was less than 8 hours. It ended up being one of the very first detailed explanations of how it may have happened on the entire Internet, and the very first one that was written by a professional pilot.

It was mentioned on CNN, which gave it a bump in views, but as with most news stories, the view count dropped off dramatically once the news cycle moved on. Nonetheless, it was read so much on the first day it was out that it made it into the top 5 for the entire year despite being from late November.

That was what you thought were the best of 2013 based on the number of page views. My own personal top five favorites are U.S. Weather Patterns: The really big picture, Flight training in 76 seconds, Hidden weather secrets, literally, Altitude and Airspeed: Money in the bank, and They don't build airports like this anymore.

What did you like the most? Leave a comment and let me know so I can try to do more of that for you. After all, Keyboard & Rudder is designed to be useful for you, so your input on what you like, what you didn't care for, what you'd like to see, etc. is important for bringing you the best content for you!

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.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Century of Airlines

Some day people will be crossing oceans on airliners like they do on steamships today.
—Thomas Benoist, creator of the Benoist XIV, the world's first airliner
What was impossible yesterday is an accomplishment today, while tomorrow heralds the unbelievable.
—Percival Elliot Fansler, organizer, co-founder, and manager of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line

Happy new year! January 1, 2014 doesn't just ring in a new year; it also marks 100 years since the first flight of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, which was the first scheduled commercial airline.

100 years ago. Author unknown.

It's popular to complain about the lack of food on airline flights these days, the cramped seats in a confined metal tube, and the flight attendants who are almost as surly and antagonistic as Verizon's customer service representatives, but a hundred years ago none of those had even been invented to complain about. (Yes, even the seat wasn't there to complain about: it was a wooden bench exposed to the wind and sea spray.)

The first airline flight was a quick, 23-minute hop across Tampa Bay. Nowadays that is too small a leg for an airline to even consider. In fact, it's not much longer than the final approach airliners use to land on Runway 36 at Tampa International!

However, 100 years ago this was an absolutely amazing improvement. Keep in mind that none of the three bridges across the bay had been built yet (the first, the Gandy Bridge, was still ten years away), and cars were extremely unreliable anyway. For travel of almost anything longer than walking distance, people took trains. In the days before rapid transit, the train ride to Tampa took 12 hours, and the only alternative, boats, took almost twice that.

In length and the location of its start and end points it is close to a flight from today's Albert Whitted Airport (KSPG) to Peter O. Knight Airport (KTPF). Knight is not far from the mouth of the Hillsborough River, which is where the first flight ended.

None of the airports on this chart existed at the time. For that matter, neither did aeronautical charts. Or SkyVector, which is where this comes from. The original flight plan stayed closer to the shoreline, making it 23 miles in total, 15 of which were along the shore.
Today, there is a historical marker by the St. Petersburg pier celebrating this event. I took a picture of it a few years ago while my wife and I were there for our honeymoon:

You can find the marker yourself here in Google Maps. It is not far from the location of Albert Whitted Airport, and the airport also calls itself the birthplace of the airlines.

Whether by coincidence or by design, the contract to create the airline was signed on December 17th, 1913. Does that date sound familiar? It should: it was exactly 10 years from the day the Wright brothers took their first flight.

While the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line only lasted four months (which was actually longer than it was intended to), and it made little money, it was an extremely useful proof of concept. Twenty years later, in 1934, another airline, National Airlines, would be founded in St. Petersburg. This time, it would be founded at an actual airport, as Albert Whitted was built in 1928.

Aviation History magazine has an excellent story about the events of the first day, the founding of the airline, and its dissolution four months later. It is quite long, but very informative. There are also some pictures at Airline Timetable Images.

Airline travel has come quite far since then. In fact, it has come so far it has almost ended up back where it began, but with shinier airplanes. Airline travel rose from a rickety, slow airboat to the glory days of Pan Am's luxuriously appointed and hosted 747s and the supersonic Concorde, and has gone back to its roots with lousy seats, no food, and no service. (That's why learning to fly yourself is such a good idea: travel on your schedule, no layovers, bring whatever you want to eat, you can bring as much luggage as the plane will carry and no one from the TSA will paw through it while groping you "for your safety", and if you want to bring gallons of water, there is no 3 oz. limit.)

Two of the best aviation books ever written were by former airline captains Ernest K. Gann and Bob Buck. Both of them tell amazing stories of the glory days of airlines and aviation, and the beauty of their writing is matched only by the beauty of their subject. Even if you never, ever want to learn to fly and just like to read, these books are two you absolutely, positively must read:


Clicking on the covers will take you to Amazon where you can see why they both have 5-star reviews. If you buy one or both while you're there, you'll help support Keyboard and Rudder at no cost to you! (Assuming you used the links above.)

But whether you buy them, check them out from the library, or borrow a friend's copy, read them. You'll thank me for it later, after you've soaked in page after outstandingly written page about the early days of major airlines. After you're done, you can look back and remember that it all started with this one little hop across Tampa Bay.