Like Larry the Flying Guy on Facebook!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Some things you can only see as a pilot

Speaking with the perspective that a pilot first sees, then feels, then merges with, Charles Lindbergh said, "Life is like a landscape. You live in the midst of it but can describe it only from the vantage point of distance." Amelia Earhart echoed that wisdom when she pointed out, "You haven't seen a tree until you've seen its shadow from the sky."

There are many things only pilots can see. And while airliners have their own great vantage point, able to see the mountains or the ocean from 100 miles away, those of us who get to set our own course and our own altitudes, whether 1,000 feet up or 10,000, get to combine the "above it all" perspective with enough nearness to still see detail.

This winter has been an exceptionally cold one, and the Great Lakes have not just broken the record for ice, they have smashed it. While I was flying at 2500 MSL (which is about 2000 feet above ground level here) on February 13, 2014, I noticed this extremely unusual configuration of cracks in the ice in Lake Erie:

Click image to embiggen.

Although that looks like a map, it is ice on the lake! However, if you were standing on the lake shore, you would have no idea that was there. It would look like a flat sheet of white to the ground-bound shoregazer.

At that time, Lake Erie was 95.3% frozen (according to NOAA's Ice Dynamics site), which was down from 99% only a couple of days earlier. Just two days later, it was already thawing and that whole region was back to water:

The same place two days later. Click image to embiggen.
A few miles east of that, I flew over some dazzling ice patterns. I wont clutter up this post with all of them except for this one, which is simply spectacular:

Click image to embiggen.

In this and so many other ways, flying does not simply give you a whole new perspective on the world, it lets you see things about the world you never would have known even existed.

These glimmering arrays of ice are already gone, victims of a pair of days of 50+ degree weather. While their beauty was ephemeral, the experience of seeing them through the eyes of a pilot is eternal.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Why there is no reason to fly through a thunderstorm in peacetime

Like Larry the Flying Guy on Facebook:

Follow on Twitter, too:

There is an oft-repeated maxim in aviation weather: There is no reason to fly through a thunderstorm in peacetime. While this is attributed to a sign in a particular Air Force base (although which base changes depending on who's telling the story), it's probably hanging somewhere around almost every military aviation operations office—and if it isn't, it should be. Check out the picture below to see why:

Picture taken over Africa from the International Space Station. Courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center. Click image to embiggen.
What's most remarkable about this picture is that this isn't a particularly remarkable thunderstorm. It's a garden-variety cumulonimbus, as evidenced by its lack of a prominent overshooting top. A large overshoot would indicate that the convection inside is stong enough to bust through the "cap" of the troposphere. This one has a nice, clearly defined core, but gets squashed flat pretty quickly once it reaches the tropopause. (The NASA-provided caption for the original picture has a short, easy-to-read description of what causes cumulonimbus to form, grow, and get squshed. It's impressively non-technical, as far as NASA writings go.)

So what? Why do you care about a picture of run-of-the-mill thunderstorm? Because despite this particular storm's "meh" status among thunderstorms in general (this one is the kind you'd go out on the back porch, kick back with a glass of your favorite beverage, and watch roll through), it still contains an immense amount of energy inside it.

How much energy? To give you even a notion of the power inside an average thunderstorm, look at the towering cumulus at the right of the picture (the smaller puff of cloud just ahead of the thunderstorm itself—see this picture if you need help). Notice how much smaller that tower is than the thunderstorm is? That TCu (towering cumulus) isn't even a thunderstorm yet; it's a thunderstorm still in the process of being formed.

Nonetheless, that "little" tower is still bigger than the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima was. That's right: for all we humans think we've "mastered" nature, and for all the fury we think we can unleash, the first atomic bomb wasn't even as big as Mother Nature putzing around. Don't take my word for it; see it for yourself in this picture taken from the Enola Gay:

Image 542192 from the U.S. National Archives. The top of the mushroom cloud is 1/2 to 1/3 as tall as the towering cumulus above.
While little boys like Little Boy release their energy on a scale of milliseconds to seconds, thunderstorms operate on much longer time scales (like minutes to hours). This makes them seem less fearsome than an atomic bomb, but inside each one of them is much, much more power.

How much more? A meterologist at the University of Chicago calculated way back in 1953 that it is 50 times more.

Is that enough of a reason for you not to fly through a thunderstorm in peacetime?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Ratings, certificates, and endorsements... Oh my!

I've had this on the list of topics to write about for quite some time, but coming across this quote made me say that today is the day to clear up the difference between "certificate", "rating", and "endorsement":

At the onset of their studies, students are given an opportunity to fly with an instructor and within just three weeks earn their first rating certificate, which allows them the right to fly solo.

The phrase "rating certificate" doesn't even make sense once you understand the difference. If they hadn't explained that it's for solo, I would have had no idea what they were talking about, especially since they meant "endorsement". The word "rating" is probably the most misused term in all of aviation, but this quotation set a new record for misuse.

A certificate is also informally referred to as a license. When you pass your first checkride, you'll have a Sport Pilot certificate or a Private Pilot certificate. If I'm addressing my college class or a flight student, I use the term certificate exclusively. If I'm talking to the media or a non-flying audience, I'll use certificate or license interchangeably. The difference is basically just a trivial, obscure bit of legal minutiae.

A rating is something that adds to a certificate you already have. You can't get an instrument rating without already having a pilot certificate, right? After all, what good would it do to be allowed to fly on instruments but not be able to fly an aircraft?

There are only a handful of certificates (sport, private, commercial, ATP—I just pretend the recreational certificate doesn't exist for reasons I'll explain in another post) but a soup of ratings: airplane single-engine, multi-engine, sea (which has its own single/multi-engine), rotorcraft, instrument, and even more.

As for categories vs. ratings, something that may help you remember the difference is that if it's something that extends abilities you already have (like being able to fly on instruments, being able to fly an airplane with an extra engine strapped on or with floats instead of regular landing gear), it's a rating. If it requires you to learn how to fly something completely different from what you're used to (like a helicopter, glider, balloon, etc.), then it's a category.

What both certificates and ratings have in common is a checkride with an FAA examiner or designee. If you had to take a checkride, you end up with at least a new rating and possibly a new certificate at the end of it. Your very first checkride will end up with you having both: a Private Pilot certificate with a single-engine rating (to use the most common example). If you learn to fly at a school that starts you off in a twin like a Seminole, you'll end up with a Private Pilot certificate with a multi-engine rating. Once you've done that, you can take another checkride to add your instrument rating to the private or commercial certificate you already have.

(You can't add an instrument rating to an Airline Transport Pilot certificate because the instrument rating is a pre-requisite to get an ATP certificate in the first place. You can't add an instrument rating to a Sport Pilot certificate because sport pilots can't fly on instruments.)

The easiest way to remember it is to look at the piece of plastic the FAA issued you, if you have one already. If it's on the front under the phrase "has been found to be properly qualified to exercise the privileges of", it's a certificate. If it's on the back, it's a rating. The FAA even helps you remember that the back contains your ratings by putting "RATINGS" right there.

So what about endorsements? Well, you can remember those as whatever privileges you can exercise with just an instructor's signature instead of a full checkride. One endorsement everyone who has ever flown an aircraft by themselves will get along the way is the solo endorsement. That's a set of signatures from an instructor saying that you have received all the training 14 CFR 61.87 requires, have taken the quiz, and can safely operate that particular make and model of aircraft.

If you go on past solo, you'll receive further endorsements. One allows you to take the FAA written exam. Another says that you've received training to prepare you for the checkride, and the last one you'll ever have to get is one attesting that you are ready to pass it. All of these are signatures in your logbook, not pieces of plastic.

Many people never get another endorsement after the checkride (except for biennial flight reviews). However, there are plenty more optional ones if you want to enhance your skills or expand the aircraft available to you. A popular one is the high-performance endorsement, which allows you to operate aircraft with an engine of more than 200 horsepower. It is often combined with the complex endorsement, which requires all three of the following: flaps, a constant-speed propeller, and retractable landing gear. If you want to fly conventional gear airplanes (or, as everyone else calls them, taildraggers), you can get a tailwheel endorsement. There is no such thing as a "tailwheel rating". No. Such. Thing.

A rare one among typical general aviation pilots is the high-altitude endorsement, which allows you to fly above 24,000 feet and does not require actually flying a plane. Again, what all endorsements have in common is that they are signatures in your logbook, and none of them actually are printed on your certificate itself. Endorsements are like ratings in that they add to the privileges you can exercise with your certificate, but endorsements require less official paperwork.

To make it even easier to remember the difference, here's a process for figuring out whether it's a certificate, rating, or endorsement:

Did I have to take a checkride to get this?

No: It's an endorsement. You're done.
Yes: Did it change the front or back of my license?

Front: It's a certificate.
Back: It's a rating.

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.