Sunday, October 26, 2008

Aviation Terms I Hate

I love aviation, but there are several terms or phrases that drive me nuts. Many of these phrases are used regularly by pilots and even some have official FAA definitions. I will rant about several of these during this BLOG Post.

My favorite term is "Near Miss". This phrase is used by pilots when 2 airplanes nearly have a midair collision. It might be uttered in this context. "I was flying along when all of a sudden another airplane flew right in front of me. It was a 'near miss'." Well that is not a near miss. A midair collision is a "near miss". In other words, you nearly missed, but did not, and are about to make an unscheduled end to your flight. Anyway, when 2 airplanes collide, it is a "near miss". Better luck next time.

Another great phrase is "Uncontrolled Airport". I can think of nothing worse to say to a non-pilot than, "We are about to land at an uncontrolled airport for lunch". It sounds like anarchy in the air. Maybe they let the local state hospital folks roam around the airport for the day, or Stephen King beings are wandering the runway. No matter how you cut it, uttering those words to non-aviation folks may strike significant fear. Maybe Pilot-Controlled is better and possibly more accurate.

Here's another term that is not accurate of the situation and also would cause concern to non-aviation folks, "Dead Stick Landing". For starters, the stick was never alive, so calling it dead is at most, disingenuous. We, pilots, use this phrase when an engine quits and we must glide to land. Here's my point, and rave. The stick was never alive, and now it is not dead. In fact, the stick continues to work just as well as it did before the engine quit. The main difference is that when you pull back on the stick, the plane does not climb (without the engine). But it is still performing all of its functions flawlessly. Now if you continue to pull back on a stick in this situation, then you might stall, spin, and die. At any rate, the stick is not dead.

Here's another term that must have been invented by a bunch of FAA guys on their ninth beer, a "Complex Airplane". To be fair, the only thing complex in my life are relationships. But airplanes don't even come close. Airplanes are predictable and do mostly the same thing in the same situations. Exceed critical AOA, and you will stall. Cross control and exceed AOA and you will spin. Do this at low altitude and you will die. Airplanes are even cool under pressure. In most pilot-induced situations, if the pilot takes his/her hands and feet off the controls, the plane will fix itself. Try doing that in a relationship. Anyway, I ramble on. The FAA defines a complex airplane as an airplane with a constant speed propeller and retractable gear. What's complex about that. The prop spins at the same RPM against different throttle positions. And your gear retracts and un-retracts. Sounds pretty simple. Complex would be that the prop changes its RPM for no reason, and/or the gear retracts/extends based on phases of the moon and atmospheric pressure. Nothing complex about it, except how the FAA came to that conclusion. They should have called it "Faster Airplanes".

Lastly, for now, my last term is "Mooney". After all, most people think of a "cult" when they think of Mooneys. Well, I guess they are right about this one. Cancel my rant on this term. We are a cult. We love airplanes and constantly feel the need for speed. We even lie about how fast our Mooneys fly and on how little fuel we consume. We do love our Mooneys too much, by half.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Friends don't let friends fly Slow Airplanes

I recently met another cool Mooney pilot, Dave Morris, who flys a Mooney M20A. My Mooney is an M20C. Dave's has wood wings, and mine doesn't. He loves his wood wing and the smooth speed and performance of Mooneys. His card has the quote of the subject of this blog entry. It made me laugh when I first saw it. Dave has that effect on people. This entry isn't about Dave, though, it's about Mooney pilots.

We love to fly fast. Some airplanes are about landing in remote mountain grass strips or along the banks of a river, or in a field. Mooneys are about speed. I feel the need for speed. Everything about them is fast. All we talk about is how we have modified our planes for speed. Some have added a new windshield that is sleeker. Or the engine cowling I put on got me 6 extra knots of speed. Those flap gap seals sure improved my cruising speed. It goes on forever and forever, and it makes us love our Mooneys more. Let's face it, Mooneys even look fast just sitting on the ramp.

We measure our mods in "knots". That mod I did on my Mooney got me 3 extra knots of speed. The truth is two-fold. Some mods don't give us any speed advantage, but just look cool. Other mods give us a speed improvement, but I think you need to multiply all pilot estimates of speed improvements by 50% to get the actual improvement. It's kind of like the big fish that got away to a fisherman.

The truth is that what we love most about our Mooneys is intangible. It feels so good when you taxi onto the runway and add takeoff power. The Mooney accelerates so quickly and wants to takeoff, sometimes before she should. But there are two truths about a Mooney. It will not takeoff before it has the right airspeed and won't land until it doesn't. Those skinny laminar flow wings and slippery fuselage demand that the pilot land at the right airspeed. If you try to land going too fast, even by a few knots, then you may end up landing in the next county. It just wants to keep flying, like most of her pilots.

The other thing Mooney pilots like to brag about is how fast they fly on so little fuel. And to be honest, Mooneys are one of the most efficient aircraft ever built regarding speed and fuel economy. But just like speed, we tend to exaggerate the fuel economy. You will often hear, "I flew here on 8.3 gallons per hour (GPH). The next pilot says, "I got here on 7.9 gph. If you keep going, some Mooney pilot will land with more fuel than he/she took off with. It's just the lore of Mooneys and their pilots.

So when you go to a fly-in, you will often hear a pilot claim, I got here in 2 hours, but if I were flying a Cessna, I would have had to leave yesterday. I guess you just have to love those magnificent pilots and their flying Mooney machines.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What Causes Airplane Accidents!

In a word, "pilots" cause most accidents. Most people think that airplane accidents are mostly caused by mechanical issues. This is just an old wives tale (OWT). More than 75% of all accidents point back to the pilot. Here's something that will surprise many non-pilots. A portion of pilot-induced accidents start before the pilot leaves the ground.

Here's an example, the weather is questionable, maybe fog or thunderstorms, for instance. The pilot decides that the weather will improve. It might, but if it doesn't, then there's the beginning of an accident. Most VFR pilots (visual flight rules) who fly into "instrument" conditions will crash within minutes. Usually they get disoriented and end up in a stall/spin which is usually fatal. Other endings could result in what pilots call CFIT (controlled flight into terrain). That's when you fly into what I call a cumulo-granite cloud (or a mountain hidden in a cloud).

Another great example of pilot-induced accidents is caused by "get home-itis". This accident type also begins on the ground. It's always better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than being in the air wishing you were on the ground. Get Home-itis inflicts a pilot who needs to return home and will do so against his/her own better judgement. It could be bad weather, or a tired pilot, or a slightly sick pilot who just must get home. Live to fly another day and wait til whatever isn't acceptable becomes acceptable.

Then there's accidents that happen after the pilot is in the air. The most disappointing accident is the one where the last words from the pilot were "watch this". It usually means he/she is going to do a maneuver, possibly at low altitude, where the pilot might become distracted from flying the plane, and augers in. This is easily avoidable, as are the examples above.

Here's an example of pilot-induced accidents, that will shock and awe most non-pilots. I refer to this accident as "fuel challenged" accidents. These are caused by the pilot running out of fuel while inflight. Nothing is more useless than fuel not in an airplane. This is an absolutely avoidable accident, don't you think! Sometimes pilots just don't pay attention, and other times they encounter headwinds which extends their flying time, and oops, I'm out of fuel.

Here's another pilot-induced accident that most of the time is fatal. In running out of gas, you may be lucky enough to glide to an airport, a road, or a field. But this type of accident has no wiggle room. It is a stall/spin at low altitude. These usually happen during takeoff or landing. On takeoff, the pilot does not maintain adequate airspeed, and stalls, sometimes ending in a spin which at low altitude is usually fatal. The same thing happens on landings as well. If you stall/spin at low altitude, it's usually fatal. But on landing we are making turns to base and turns to final. Sometimes a pilot may overshoot one of those turns and steepen his/her turn to stay on track. This can also result in a stall/spin since you are already going slow (to land) and fatal because you are at low altitude.

So there are many more types of accidents that include mechanical problems with the engine or a flight control, but they are a minority of the causes. Airplanes don't generally cause accidents, pilots do. So the best remedy is for the pilot to be continually learning about safety in aviation. Like a variation of a Dylan song, "if you aren't continually learning about flying, you're busy dying".

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Flying to Oshkosh & Back

We decided to take our Mooney to Oshkosh this year. Since I was a little boy, I had wanted to go to Oshkosh. So we departed Paso Robles, CA on what turned out to be our greatest flying adventure in our lives. But before we left we made our most important decision. We would make this a 2 week journey out and back with Oshkosh sandwiched in the middle. Our first stop was only an hour away in Tehachapi, CA to get cheap gas and meet up with Mitch and Jolie who flew a Mooney as well and are great friends. Our first stop together would be Cedar City, UT and a visit to Cedar Breaks and Bryce Canyon. It was clear to us that inviting Mitch & Jolie would be a highlight of this trip. We flew in loose formation and talked on the radio the whole way. The best exchange was when Mitch asked "I wonder what the poor folks are doing today?" and Linda replied, "Driving". We rode horses in Bryce Canyon and had a lot of laughs. After a few days it was onto Yellowstone with a fuel stop in Alpine WY. This has to be the most picturesque airport in the west. We got "cheap" gas and got our 3rd high density altitude departure in as many departures. We climbed over the lake and everything was smooth, but we had to turn right and climb over a huge range. Just as we were climbing over it, we got hit with a huge air pocket which rearranged all of our baggage and internal organs. Then it was smooth again. Two days of fun at Yellowstone, lots of hiking, and visits to the Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole. These are some of the most beautiful areas in the USA. Mitch & Jolie had to leave to see family in Indiana, so Linda and I went on alone. We stopped in at Custer Country, SD for fuel. Ralph, the airport manager, changed that into an overnight by arranging a car and a hotel. We toured Custer State Park, the Black Hills, Rushmore, and Crazy Horse. What a great unplanned adventure, thanks to Ralph. Then onto Algona, IA. Why Algona, you might ask? Well, the picture of the airport looked like a "Field of Dreams" surrounded in every direction by corn fields. Linda wanted to land at this place, so we did. Such wonderful criteria for our next stop. Well we got there and had no car or hotel, but in Iowa that's not a problem. The airport hooked us up with a free courtesy car and a hotel down the street as well as restaurant recommendations. I would return the car at "0-dark-thirty am" the next day and asked the airport manager where to hide the keys. He said, "Phil, you are in Iowa. Just leave the car unlocked with the keys in the ignition." Well Linda says, "I guess we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto!". Then onto Oshkosh, skirting a row of thunderstorms with our trusty new Garmin 496 GPS equipped with XM Weather to guide us through safely. We hooked up with dozens of friends at Oshkosh and explored the whole place. It is a wonderland for pilots!
After 4 days, we departed west, but planned to go south and west to explore more of this great country of ours. We flew on top of low clouds most of the way to York, NE. You guessed it, they had low fuel prices from AIRNAV.COM. In landing at York, we had to find a hole in the clouds to descend. Linda found a nice long and narrow hole and we descended gracefully. Turns out Nebraska folks are just as friendly as Iowa folks and gave us a car and a restaurant, and off we went. After fueling up, we departed for Mooreland, OK (yup, cheapest fuel west of the Mississippi). And Linda was racking up new states she had never visited (she would get 10 new states before we got home). Well, we thought there was nothing in Mooreland, but we were wrong again. Darrel, the airport manager, met us with a wave as we landed and taxied up to the pumps. Darrel has to be the greatest airport manager we have ever met. He was single-handedly bringing the airport back to life. He drove us all over Mooreland looking for a hotel room, but there were no rooms in Mooreland that day, so he drove us 20 miles back to the airport, fueled us up, and we departed for Amarillo, TX. We figured a city that size had to have rooms.
Amarillo had rooms and a shuttle to the hotel. Good Mexican food, and a half hour in the hot spa and our weary flying bones were ready for bed-time. In the morning we departed for Santa Fe, NM. What a beautiful flight over the high country of New Mexico. Mitch & Jolie have a slightly faster airplane than ours and Jolie did a 360-degree turn and ended up behind us. She never caught up with us after that, so we had a few more laughs. Santa Fe is fantastic. Mitch & Jolie went to Bandelier (native ruins), and we spent the day shopping and drinking in Santa Fe. We met up for dinner, and finished another great day, one of our few planned days.
It was exciting and sad to get up for the final time at 0-dark-thirty the next morning. We were headed home. We had to get up at such an early time to avoid the hot desert which causes lots of turbulence and uncomfortable flying. We got none. The high country and desert is always beautiful from low altitudes and this day was no exception. We had an overcast for part of the way which kept us cool. We flew over Meteor Crater in Arizona which is magnificent from the air, and then followed the interstate almost all the way to Lake Havasu. It was still early in the morning and already 102-degrees there. We were greeted by name by Jeff at D2 Aero who remembered us from a year previous when we had a fly-in there. We felt like family. But we had to go since we had a few hundred more miles of Mojave Desert to cover and it was already hot hot hot. Despite the heat, we had a smooth flight to Paso Robles. As we were landing, we lost our alternator. What a great place to have something break on such a long journey. It turned out to be a broken ground terminal on the alternator and was fixed in 10 minutes.
What a great adventure we had. The best part was the new friends we met and old friends that shared our adventure with us. And yeah, the scenery was wonderful and the flying great, but it's the people that made it special for us. Thanks to Mitch & Jolie, Ralph, Darrel, and Jeff, and too many other people we met on the way to/from Oshkosh.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Remembering Flying with My Daughter

So I have 3 daughters, but in this post, I am going to share a little story of flying with my youngest daughter Erin. It is particularly interesting timing since she is now grown up and will be flying to Baghdad in 3 days.

I started bringing Erin flying when she was a baby. Of all my kids, Erin seemed to like flying the most, so she got to sit in the right sit whenever she flew. She wanted to not just fly in the airplane, but she wanted to "fly" the airplane. So over time, I would teach her the various elements of flying. Quickly she learned how to fly straight and level, and to follow a course. Well, it was almost flying a course! I would tell her to fly to that big mountain, and she would fly to that big mountain. As we got closer, I would give her another visual point to fly towards, such as that odd shaped lake. This was actually quite a feat if you realize that she was 5 years old at the time.

But the story doesn't end here. When others would fly with us, they noticed that Erin would periodically lower the nose of the airplane into a short descent and then recover the lost altitude. I just thought this was 5 year old flying technique. My passengers thought a 5 year old should not be flying and never enjoyed this technique. I asked Erin why she did this one day, and she answered "Because I'm too short to see over the instrument panel, and I lower the nose so I can see the place you asked me to fly to." I thought this was quite ingenious of a 5 year old pilot and I had not taught her to do that, which I thought was way cool. Several years later, I wonder how she solved this problem in a car?

Anyway, after lots of complaints from passengers, Erin developed a new technique (by now she was 6 years old), and instead of putting the plane into a shallow dive, she kicked the rudder pedals which made the airplane yaw to the left so she could look out her window to see the big mountain or odd shaped lake that she was flying towards. More innovative techniques, but still grumbling passengers over a 6 year old flying them to Nantucket that day.

Go fly little girl!

A proud Dad

Thursday, July 10, 2008

I.F.R. Flying

Well, I bet you thought this post was going to be about IFR, Instrument Flying Rules, as opposed to VFR, Visual Flying Rules. Actually both types of flying "rule", although I do all of my flying VFR. I do that for one reason. I fly to enjoy the view and to get to somewhere fun.

Anyway, this story is about I.F.R. which I did with my Dad early in my flying life. I.F.R. stands for I Follow Roads (or Rivers). On this day, my Dad wanted to know what it would be like if we turned all of our navigational aids off and just followed the roads to our destination. We departed Manchester NH, climbed to 3500' and got on Route 3 heading south. My Dad thought it was fun to be going south in the northbound lane, so we did that all the way into Massachusetts. We turned right onto I-495 and just enjoyed the ride. We were enroute to Bradley field near Hartford CT. I planned to fly I-495 to the Mass Turnpike, turn west (in the eastbound lanes of course). Well, we are flying down the Mass Pike as the locals call it, fat dumb and happy. What a great day to fly.

About this time, I feel like we are aboiut 15 miles out from Bradley, so I call the tower. They tell me to expect a straight in for runway 27. Everything is A-OK. Life is good. We continue flying but the airport does not come into sight as expected. Then the radio calls become a little crackly. I switch radios, but it's still crackly. Finally, we see the airport and call the tower. He says that he does not have us in sight, on the crackly radio. I continue and see the runway is 24, not 27 as I thought, so I call and tell the tower, 3 miles out for 24. He comes back and says, what color is the runway? Thinking that is an odd question, I respond, "black". He says, our runway is white (concrete), and it's runway 27, not 24.

Well it seems that Dad and I mistakenly exited the Mass Pike on I-84 and found our way to an airport somewhere in Connecticutt, but that was certainly not Bradley Field. We decided to land since we were hungry, and decided that we would not go to Bradley that day since we didn't want to get teased by the controllers. Since this field was uncontrolled, we felt like nobody would know our mistake. Well as we pulled up to the little terminal, an older guy comes out and welcomes us to "the new Bradley airport", and then started laughing at us.

We flew home with our navigation aids turned on.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Smokey Flying

So I live in California where there are 343 phenomenal flying days per year. The other 22 are rainy or foggy. But this summer is different. It's nasty flying everyday, due to the 1500+ wildfires. It's really quite frustrating since I can see that the day is perfect with blue sky, and if it weren't for the smoke, unlimited visibility, or as we pilots refer to it as "Severe Clear".

Suffering from a withdrawl of flying, due to the smoke, I grabbed my trusty co-pilot and wife, and pulled 22Q out of the hangar. It was a wonderful day with no clouds and a light wind. But I knew the smoke was thick. But addiction being what it is, and knowing that it was safe to fly, we strapped on the airplane, and started our taxi. As we started to climb, we could see and smell smoke. The visibility was 5-6 miles but everything was in a Stephen King haze. We had no horizon to fly against, so I had to rely on my instruments to keep the wings level. It's odd that our inner ear misleads us while flying. If we relied solely on our sense of balance in a no-horizon situation, we would crash. It's simply not accurate, but on this day, our instruments were reliable and we flew onto Santa Paula, near the coast of Central/Southern California. This disorientation, by the way, is probably what did John Kennedy in at Nantucket, but that is another story.

Flying in smoke is not as much fun as not flying in smoke. You can't see very far, and sometimes you can only see a small area downwards. On this day the visibility was definitely deteriorating due to our proximity to fires and by now it was down to about 4 miles. There are TFRs for fires, which means Temporary Flight Restrictions. These are setup by the FAA for a number of reasons, one of which is fires, in order to give the aerial fire fighters a safe area to combat fires. On this day, we witnessed fires in their early stages, maybe before the authorities even knew about them. We avoided them nonetheless for safety reasons and also because breathing smoke is less fun than flying in smoke.

Usually flying to the destination is as much, or more, fun than actually being at your destination. On this smokey day, it was nice to land safely at Santa Paula and to visit our best friends who also flew to Santa Paula to have lunch with us. The reward of flying today was in flying in crappy weather in a safe manner. It is taxing, but very rewarding. I must be vigilant of everything around me, including other airplanes, but also rely on my instruments if there is no horizon. Without a horizon, I also have to navigate much more closely. I cannot see for miles and identify landmarks to mark my progress, but need to identify landmarks in a much smaller radius. Thank goodness for GPS which guides you to your destination, but like any electronics, they are a tool and cannot always be relied upon.

Anyway, flying in California is always wonderful, except during wildfire season.