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Monday, March 31, 2014

Coming back to life

A few days ago, AOPA announced a "rusty pilots" initiative to help bring people who haven't flown in years back into the ranks of active pilots. This is a great idea, and I certainly hope it succeeds. After all, one of the hardest things about being a pilot is becoming a pilot, so it's a lot harder to add to the pilot community by creating new pilots from scratch than it is to "resurrect" lapsed pilots.

Notice I didn't say "former pilots". That's because there is no such thing as a former pilot: once you have a license, it's good forever. However, you can't exercise the privileges of that license without a flight review every two years. But what happens if you don't?

Here's what doesn't happen if you don't fly for two or more years:

  • You don't have to take a long, formal ground school again.
  • You don't have to take your written exam again.
  • You don't have to take your checkride again.
  • You don't have to fly a certain number of hours (like the 40 required for your original license).
  • You don't have to fill out FAA paperwork.

Here's what you do have to do:
  • You have to be able to act as PIC (pilot in command) again

Simple, right?

Actually, it is. The AOPA article says that it will take about 1 hour for every year you've been out of the cockpit. I'd never heard it stated that way, but that's actually pretty close to what my own experience bringing pilots "back to life" has shown me to be the case in general. It tends to level off at about 12-15 hours even if it has been longer than 12-15 years, though.

That's the flying side of how long it will take. How about the knowledge side? Actually, that's usually the easier part for me. That's because in general, once people get bit by the flying bug again, they usually tend to do the reading on their own. Planes still fly on the same basic principles, so most of what has changed is the avionics, airspace, and regulations. Here's a rough breakdown of what might be new to you depending on how long you've been inactive:

Less than 5 years:

  • Almost nothing important. Depending on where you live, the airspace may look a little different, but if it has, your instructor will definitely make sure you know.

5-10 years:

  • You may or may not have flown using a GPS, especially if you're closer to 10 years than 5. Ten years ago the average rental aircraft was as likely to not have a GPS as it was to have one. Nowadays it's hard to find one without at least a basic, handheld unit like a Garmin 296-696.
  • If you live in the Washington, D.C. area, you may not be aware of the changes in the SFRA (Special Flight Rules Area) since 9/11. After that day, the rules got totally ridiculous, then shrunk a little bit to the present mostly-ridiculous level. You'll need to take an online course just to be able to fly in that area.
  • Other types of new airspace and/or changed borders of prior airspace. This is the sort of thing that having an instructor who is knowledgeable about your specific area is perfect for. We fly in it everyday, so when something changes, we know about it.
  • Glass cockpits are more commonplace than they used to be. You're more likely to see one now than 10 years ago, but unless you're flying a newer aircraft, you might not see one. There aren't a whole lot of people who spend the money to completely retrofit an old steam panel to glass, especially since doing so can cost 100%-500% (or even more) of the aircraft's value.
  • You have to have your old paper license replaced with a plastic, credit-card sized one. Fortunately, that's extremely easy to do and costs only $2.

10-20 years:

  • You've almost definitely never seen GPS. That's a good thing for you in a way, because it means you'll be that much happier when you see just how much easier it is compared to VORs and NDBs, both of which are going away. The thick VOR network is going to be pared down to the minumum necessary to serve as a backup to GPS. NDBs have been officially declared obsolete and are not being fixed when they break, so they are fading slowly as the equipment decays.
  • If you are one of the rare pilots that flew with a LORAN system, you'll be used to GPS. However, GPS is way more accurate and reliable. And LORAN is also officially obsolete.
  • You probably flew during the transition from TCAs, ARSAs, CZs, etc. to the current airspace system, which has Class A, B, C, D, E, and G. Although there were some structural changes as well, most of the "Class x" airspace has an analogous former name (like Class B for TCA, for example).

20 years or more:

  • Everything above, plus you're probably the most common type of returning flyer! The majority of "re"lapsed pilots I've trained have a gap of 20-25 years, which uncoincidentally is almost exactly how long it takes to have kids and then have them grow up and move out so you can have your time and money back.

I handle returning pilots just like a flight review. Why? Because that's exactly what it is. Your license is still just as valid as it ever was, but you have to have a flight review to continue to exercise the privileges of the certificate. Every instructor is different, but this is how I do things:
  1. I sit down with you and learn about the kind of flying you used to do and plan to do once you're active again.
  2. We get in the air and do some maneuvers like you're used to. I place a heavy emphasis on slow flight and stall recognition to reawaken your butt feel and stick and rudder senses. If you didn't have those senses before, you will by the time I'm done with you.
  3. We do as much pattern work as necessary. It may start off rough, but after a while, it will all click again. If you grease the first one, congratulate yourself on your luck and don't take your arm off the yoke to pat yourself on the back.
  4. We chair-fly a cross country, with extra attention paid to those airspace details that may have changed or may be entirely new to you. Depending on how long it has been and whether or not you are already familiar with the GPS, we may fly an actual cross country, too.
Depending on how many hours you had before you took your break and the kind of flying you used to do, it may take you a few less hours or it may take more. Obviously an old multi-thousand-hour freight dog is going to take less than a 100-hour hamburger hopper. Nonetheless, the Two Big Rules for how long it will take to come back are exactly the same Two Big Rules for how long it will take a brand new person to solo: 1. You'll do it when you're safe 2. It takes however long it takes to meet #1. (You can always lie about how long it took afterward just like everyone else does when talking about how long it took them to solo.)

There's a proverb that says a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Fortunately, if you're thinking of coming back, you have a lot less than a thousand miles to cover, no matter how long you've been away! You can take that first step by getting in touch with a nearby flight school or flying club, leaving me a comment or email, or checking out AOPA's new Rusty Pilots program.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Who put Loki in charge of the weather this year?

For almost everyone in the United States, this has been an unusual winter. Here in the Great Lakes area, we have been blasted with cold front after bitter cold front, and many of them have been powerful enough to plow their way all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, bringing snow all the way to New Orleans. In the past couple of weeks, we have been teased with some almost 60° days, only to have those hopes of Spring squashed with another coat of snow.

We're entering the first of the semi-annual unsettled weather periods, albeit a bit late. The first unsettled period happens around March or April, as cold winter transitions to warmer summer, and the second one happens around October or November, as the fronts battle back southward and summer cools to winter.

This is why the old adage goes, "March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb," but the particularly strong cold polar air has been able to keep the transitional warm southern air from making its way up to us for later in the season than usual. Normally by March the warm air is pushing up against the cold air and fighting it out over the Great Lakes, and as the month goes on the cold weakens and the warm strengthens and has made its way to Canada by April. Not this year.

The old stalwart of aviation weather sources, the unsurprisingly-named, rolled out a new look yesterday. While checking out the changes, I see that the weather this year still isn't done with the surprises. Check out this prog panel:

24-hour NWS prog chart for 3-26/27-2014. Click to embiggen.
The areas in green are areas of precipitation. The warm front extending from the Texas/New Mexico border all the way up to South Dakota in the left panel shows the classic trajectory of warm, moist air getting sucked north by a low, leaving a trail of wetness in its wake. If the panel went out another 12-24 hours, you'd probably be able to see it turn into an occlusion as what is left of the warm front spirals around the low like spaghetti being wrapped around a spinning fork.

That is a lot of moisture over a lot of the country! But wait—there's more! Order in the next 20 minutes and we'll throw in this spiffy NCEP forecast chart for no additional charge:
Can't get enough of rain and/or snow? Well, you've come to the right place! Just wait another 12 hours and there's a bonus deluge for you—that's three charts for the price of one:
Buy stock in umbrella and road salt companies today.
Even for this time of year, when the weather is still unsettled and there is a lot going on in the atmosphere, this much green and pink is unusual. Days like this are what make all the work that goes into an instrument rating worthwhile.

Friday, March 14, 2014

A million little pilots and not a single transponder

This probably looks like a mundane, "nothing to see here" weather radar snapshot. However, it's actually a nice sign that spring is finally just around the corner!

Why? Because those circular green patches are not rain, but are actually flocks of birds migrating back north and being reflected on radar:

From Weather Underground, one of my favorite weather sites.
You see this same pattern in the evening/pre-dawn hours during the summer when bugs and birds are active. In the fall, the green patches start from the north and work their way south.

Happy almost-spring!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

That crazy compass: lag, lead, dip, UNOS, ANDS, WTF?

One of the harder things to understand is the quirks of the compass. I looked at some videos on YouTube, and they're terrible. All of them do the same thing: drown you in details that even a Ph.D. in magnetropolifloobobbery wouldn't care about, much less someone just trying to figure out what that tempermental little bouncy ball up front is actually saying.

Sometimes, adding some detail is useful for filling in some pieces of the puzzle. Other times, instructors just pile detail after excruciating detail on the student and then act surprised when the person they're allegedly teaching ends up knowing even less about the subject than before. That's what most of the videos I found do: "Hey, here's a bunch of stuff you don't care about and will never use, and if you don't get it, just try harder!"

Since I try to cut to the heart of the subject, and since knowing about pendulous mounting and where the center of gravity of the compass is does you no good when you're just trying to fly an airplane somewhere, I created a pair of videos that show you what compass errors look like in a simulated cockpit. No geomagnetic theory required.

These videos are short, but the sort of thing I wish I had had when I was learning to fly. (Then again, I wish YouTube had even been around when I was learning.)

The first covers the turning errors:

And the second covers the acceleration/deceleration errors:

If there is a way I could have made these more useful for you, or you have a topic you haven't found a good video on, leave me a comment and I'll see what I can do for you.