Saturday, December 18, 2010

Why Fly An Approach Coupled To The Autopilot?

The other day I was having lunch with a pilot friend. We were discussing my recent blog “How To Execute An Actual Instrument Approach”. Apparently he got the idea that this was a coupled approach, one that uses the autopilot (AP) to follow the commands of the ILS signals. In fact, I hadn’t written that this was the case, rather describing a “hand” flown approach, without partial or complete use of the autopilot. Anyway, he questioned its use and so this blog.

As I believe that there are many advantages to making the approach, particularly the ILS, coupled to the autopilot, I will explain how to do it. Before going into the nitty-gritty however let me give my reasoning for doing it.

As you can see from my former article, or if you have done an ILS approach, you realize how busy things can get at certain times, especially in single pilot operations. The autopilot frees one up a bit to allow you to fully be aware of what and where you are in the approach. Meaning that you have some time to look at the all important approach chart without fighting a wing drop or altitude change. The latter assuming you have both heading and altitude coupling capabilities. That said, here is how it would work.

Basically, before the approach you would have been using the “nav and alt” features of the 2-axis AP. Different models of AP have different presentations. The picture above is just one, albeit quite popular. As the controller turns you to the inbound localizer course you should have your Nav 1 tuned to the ILS frequency. Set the inbound heading on the HSI and engage the Approach button on the AP control head. The AP will guide the plane deftly onto the localizer course while you, the PIC, verify that all is well, The altitude will be held until the glide slope is intercepted, usually at the outer marker (OM). There will be audible and usually visual indication as the altitude hold grabs onto the glide slope. Again, just monitor the approach as you manage the flight taking care to slow, add flaps, check fuel selector, mixture full rich, change the props to high RPM and drop the gear. A lot to do in a short space of time.

Ok, so that’s that. Sure I practiced flying non-autopilot approaches to make sure I stayed sharp, but also used the AP as needed, respecting its limitations (just like those of its pilot).

I just ran across an excellent article discussing all of this as a further reading:

Saturday, November 27, 2010

How To Execute An Actual Instrument Approach

Executing an instrument approach in actual “instrument” weather (ceiling below 1000 ft and visibility less than three miles) is not a game. A simulation done at home or at an FBO (fixed base operator) doesn’t create the same level of anxiety. Why should it? Just turn it off and go about your chores.

In this article I am going to lead you through the thought processes that I deem important to get an airplane and its passengers safely on the ground in really bad weather. OK here we go.

Before arriving at MHT (see my last blog), I tuned in the weather and got the following:
Information foxtrot: Visibility less than ¼ mile in fog and light rain, ceiling indefinite. You can’t land under these conditions unless you have very special equipment and expertise to handle this essentially zero zero weather. The active runway was 35 so I got the instrument approach plate for an ILS to Rwy 35. This plate illustrated everything needed to carry out the approach and landing. It delineates the proper procedure, specifying altitudes and compass headings needed if you were to fly the procedure without being vectored by approach control. All the required radio frequencies for navigation and communication are specified. It is very important to have up to date charts as changes to the above can occur.

So, about 20 miles out from MHT I was handed off to Manchester approach by Boston center. “Navajo 711EB contact Manchester approach on 124.9, good day.” I reply:”roger
Manchester approach 123.9”. Then after changing frequencies:“ Manchester approach Navajo 711EB 6000 with foxtrot”. This lets the controller know my altitude and that I have the latest weather. Approach tells me to descend to 3000 ft. He also advises me to expect a hold until the weather improves. On hearing that, I look at the approach plate and study the hold procedure which is like a racetrack carried out on specific headings with 1 minute legs. The hold area is 8 miles NW of the field, with the starting point, an intersection called Scoop.

I have decided since I have over 4 hours of fuel remaining to try a landing and “Miss” if I have to. Miss is short for a missed approach. A very important thing to clearly have defined in your head before starting any approach, but especially in conditions like this. The controller assigns me a heading of 150 degrees which will place me east of the inbound localizer course for RWY 35. Also I am told to descend to 2000, which is 1766 feet above the runway landing zone (as noted on the chart). Now it’s time to set up my nav receivers for the localizer. After dialing in the proper frequency, I listen for the identifying Morse code signal to make sure I am on the right station. This ILS signal is what can bring us down through the murk. Without it, get the parachute out, or pull the handle if you are in a Cirrus and low on fuel.

About 5 miles beyond the airport I am waiting for the turn in to intercept the localizer. The controller tells me to turn right to a heading of 240 degrees, which will bring me to intercept the localizer. Proceeding further, the course deviation indicator (CDI) is starting to move and I am “cleared for the approach”. Now I have to go through a bit of a check list: Fuel on mains, approach flaps, advance the prop controls to high RPM, mixture controls to full rich, ready for gear down at the Outer Marker (OM). The engines now are set to go to full power in case of the go around. The OM named (DERRY), is normally the start of the approach, and is announced on the instrument panel by a blinking blue light and a specific audio tone heard in my headset. I now descend to 1800 ft and prepare to intercept the all important glide slope, which if followed in concert with the CDI needle (both centered) will place me 200 ft above the runway threshold and on centerline.

Well the OM starts blinking and the audio beeps at me so I watch for the glideslope needle to move. As it comes down, my hand is on the throttles and I prepare to drop the gear, go to full flaps and reduce power to the engines. So now it’s watch, wait and hope for a break in the fog. If at the minimum altitude of 434 ft, I “don’t have the runway” in sight, I will have to execute the missed approach. The point of minimum descent is defined not only by altitude, but also by a DME (distance measuring equipment). As the DME is at the point of minimum descent, if one stays on the glideslope, it is the point of leveling off at 434 ft. There also is a chart of time to the decision point, depending on the ground speed. This is shown on the DME instrument. In our case, at about 100 knots, the time to decide to land or not is 2:31 (Min/Sec). Although I couldn't land on my first approach, after one Miss I manged to get safely on the runway. The details of how I finally landed after a 727 landed ahead of me, were discussed in my former blog.
I hope this has given you insight as to the main things a pilot does and thinks about when landing in bad weather
The main things to glean from this article: plan ahead, follow approved procedures, be current in your flight experience, fly a well maintained airplane and practice, practice and more practice.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Instrument Flying Part II-It was early one Saturday morning.....

It was early Saturday morning in Burlington VT (BTV). I was there to fly N711EB, a Piper Navajo to Manchester, NH (MHT), a typical freight run. The date was May 30 1989, Memorial day. Weather was basically VFR with a chance for IFR in Manchester. Recent passage of a cold front raised the possibility of some ground fog, especially in the early morning.

Before heading to the flight line to do my preflight check of the plane, I needed to call the Burlington flight service station for a last minute check of the weather and to file my IFR flight plan to Manchester and back. Nothing new with the weather. I requested 9000 feet for altitude going to MHT. Estimated flight time was 30 minutes. Fuel aboard the Pa31 was 4 hours. Plenty to get there and return to BTV if I couldn’t land in Manchester. Did a quick preflight and got up into the cockpit. I loved to fly the Navajos, big and roomy with plenty of power and full de-ice capability.

After engine start and checking the various things on the after start check list, I set up the radios for communication and navigation. First I would listen to ATIS (automated terminal info service) which told weather on the field and gave taxi and runway info. As the ATIS is updated a different letter of the alphabet is assigned to it, e.g. ATIS Info foxtrot. Anyway, I copied the ATIS foxtrot and called ground control or maybe clearance to obtain my IFR routing. “ Burlington clearance N711EB IFR Manchester for clearance”. The reply: N711EB you are cleared to Manchester as filed expect 9000 as final altitude”. After confirming what I had heard I was told to contact ground control. Ground control cleared me to taxi to and hold short of runway 15. After reaching the hold point at runway 15 I did the usual pre take-off check. There is an acronym, CIGAR, standing for controls, instruments, gas, attitude, run-up. This a short cut to a lengthier printed protocol, but is sufficient for the pilot proficient in that airplane. It wouldn’t work for much more complex airline type planes, where checklists are pages long. Anyhow after checking everything: engines, radios, trim, gas and the controls I called the tower for take-off clearance. I was cleared to take-off on runway heading to 3000 feet. I taxied into position and pushed both throttles forward to the stops. Satisfied that all was A_OK I released the brakes and began my take-off roll.

As I rapidly accelerated down the runway, keeping my eye on the ASI (air speed indicator), I started pulling back on the wheel lifting the nose off and beginning my climb out. The runway heading of 150 degrees essentially placed me on the airway (V141), which would take us (the plane and me) all the way to MHT. On route we would fly over LEB (Lebanon, NH) and CON (Concord, NH) with little heading change. Minimum altitudes out of BTV were 6000 once on the airway, to avoid the tops of the Green Mountains.

Once airborne, I was told to contact departure control by the tower operator. “Departure N711EB is out of 1500 for 3000”. “ 711EB clear on course, climb to requested altitude of 9000”. “711EB, roger”. After passing through 6000' I was handed off to Boston Center: "Boston 711EB 6000". They replied" cleared to maintain Niner thousand". In 25 minutes I was passing over LEB vortac (VOR) and then on to Concord VOR (CON). Just a little course correction to the south and we are headed for MHN. Engines are purring nicely, all gages are in the “green”. As we are only about 15 minutes out from our destination, I tune in the MHT ATIS and whoa! The weather is not good. Indefinite ceiling 100’, RVR (runway visual range) 3000’, ground fog. That is below minimums which are:200’ ceiling and visibility ½ mile (200 and a half) for the ILS to runway 17, the active at this time. OK I’ll just continue and hope conditions improve. I can elect to shoot the approach and if I make it because things are better than advertised great, if not I’ll do a missed approach and either try again or enter a hold as directed by ATC. Boston handed me off to Manchester Approach and the fun began.

Before long I was told to descend to 4000‘and intercept the RWY 17 localizer and follow it inbound. Then descend to 3000’ and “cleared for the approach to RWY 17”.
Shortly after I was cleared for the approach by ATC, I was advised that the previous flight had “missed”. After completing the pre landing checklist I decided to continue and give it a try. Down into the murk I we went. Cotton wool all around, absolutely no visual cues. The autopilot was on but I constantly cross checked the attitude indicator, airspeed and altimeter. The navigation indicator for flying the ILS was constantly monitored. It very accurately shows one left or right of course or above or below the glide slope. The latter is most critical when getting down below 500’. At the outer marker, I lowered the landing gear and flaps and began the descent to the field.

Anyway, arriving at the final decision point: altitude 429 feet (200 above the runway) and about ¼ mile short of the runway, still nothing but murk. So after continuing for about 5 seconds, I advanced the throttles and after ascertaining that we had a positive rate of climb, retracted the gear and the flaps. Then after all that done, I advised the tower that I was executing a missed approach. “ Manchester tower 711EB missed approach”. Tower told me to turn left, climb to 3000’ and proceed toward the CON VOR. After I requested another approach, I was handed back to approach control and again told to head back to the CON VOR and hold 10 south on the 172 degree radial. That was good as it essentially placed us right back at the start of the final approach on the localizer, where we had been only a few minutes earlier.

So, long story short. Divine providence intervened. As I was cleared for the second approach, I was told that a 727 aircraft was just taking off and that I should be aware of possible wake turbulence. Hmmm, I thought on that, realizing that in a zero wind situation on the ground the wake turbulence could persist for some time. I decided to press on and went through the same procedure as before. Intercepted the glide slope at the outer marker, gear and flaps, fuel ok, engines and props set, good luck. Well as luck would have it at about 500 or 600 feet of altitude and about ½ mile out the murk parted. The 727 that just left had apparently displaced enough fog so that I could see sufficiently ahead to successfully land. Shortly after I landed, the fog closed in again.

End of story. Persistence, flying by the rules and numbers, leaving one an out and a bit of good luck all blended together for a happy ending to the trip.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Flying On Instruments-Part 1

This is the first in a series telling “all” about flying on instruments. I have written about flying IFR (instrument flight rules), and decision making etc., but not led you through all the nitty gritty. This first part will deal with the basic instruments and radios used.

Regardless of the type of IFR weather, there are certain basics that will always apply. Some of these conditions also must be followed in VFR flight as well. In order to achieve flight, a certain airspeed, as shown on the air speed indicator must be attained. Things that affect necessary air speeds include: temperature, aircraft weight, and flight conditions such as: turbulence, ice etc. Failure to achieve or maintain necessary
speeds may mean inadvertent stall e.g.(recent case in Buffalo). If certain speeds are exceeded however, as in an uncontrolled dive, the plane may disintegrate in mid-air. This maximum safe speed (VNE), is indicated on the air speed indicator with a red line. Prior to that there is a caution zone outlined in yellow. The safe zone is “in the green”.

The airplane attitude (position relative to the horizontal) must be kept within certain reasonable limits. This is done with the aid of info from the artificial horizon, perhaps the most important gage of the instrument flight array. This instrument gives a pictorial image of the plane’s flight with respect to bank angle and pitch (climb or descent). Turns generally shouldn’t involve more than a 30 degree bank angle. Recently a tragic crash occurred near Charlotte with bank angles achieved greater than 60 degrees. These are ok during certain maneuvers but never during instrument flight. Severe bank angles markedly increase stall speeds that may lead to disaster. Similarly, climb and descent angles are limited to relatively small values. All is done in order to maintain positive, safe control of the airplane. Problems arise when for what ever reason, a pilot gets distracted, or is too busy to keep things within safe parameters. Accidents sometimes occur for example, when an inexperienced pilot suddenly encounters instrument conditions (loss of visual cues).

The final primary instrument I will discuss is the easiest to understand, the altimeter. It is nothing more than a barometer calibrated in feet or meters. Usually it can indicate differences of 20 feet and goes from below sea level (flying in a gorge out west) to many thousands of feet. Flying either VFR or IFR generally requires adhering to certain rules that specify what altitude may be flown. In controlled airspace, as for example round major airports definite altitudes will be assigned by controllers (ATC). Almost all IFR flights are conducted under direct ATC oversight, and will entail flying an assigned altitude. Failure to adhere to this altitude may be the set up for a collision, or at least the cause for a collision alert system to activate if present on the plane. All US airliners have these systems aboard.

Finally, a functioning VHF (very high frequency) aircraft radio, preferably two or more must be aboard, enabling the pilot to communicate with ATC. Navigation radios are necessary and are frequently part of the communication radios. Several different types are needed and will be discussed later. Also a transponder is required which allows ATC to positively identify the aircraft position and altitude (mode c). ATC assigns a specific code (four numbers) to each flight.

That’s enough to get started on. I’ll discuss the pilot’s interaction with the above in a subsequent article about a real flight.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Flying IFR With An Option

We are on final vectors to runway 17 at Iwannabeontheground airport. The weather is just awful. Visibility ½ mile in smoke, fog and haze with the possibility of a thunderstorm. Ceiling is 250 feet and lowering. Night time is approaching and we are flying a single engine plane. Doesn’t sound too good does it? How about adding that the ILS just went out and we are left with only the localizer, making this a non-precision approach, with no glideslope (much higher minimums). Fuel aboard is 1 plus 15 or 75 minutes. Maybe, just maybe enough to get an alternate field with better weather. Scary scenario? Yes, but one faced by many pilots everyday. Most make it, but not all.

Some things that can be done that make things much less risky. Perhaps the most important is to always leave yourself an out. An escape route or plan if you will. Instead of trying to land with the weather at minimums at airport A, plan on going to airport B that has a better weather outlook. Ok, it may be farther from your destination, but that’s the price you pay for added safety.
Years ago, I was flying a passenger to Wheeling, WV, in B-58 Baron. The flight from Burlington,Vt was to take about 3 to 31/2 hours. Fuel aboard was 5 hours. As we were approaching the Pittsburgh area things began to cloud up, literally. The weather at KHLG (near Wheeling) was so-so but forecast to get worse and be near minimums. That meant we might not be able to land, but would have to go to our alternate, which would have been Allegheny County Airport (KAGC). Flight time between the two only 30 to 40 minutes. Adding everything up though, if we missed at KHLG we might not have enough fuel to return to Allegheny and still have 45 minutes of fuel remaining. The latter is the rule. The other factor was that the weather in the Pitt area was forecast to go down as well, further complicating things. So, after discussing things with my passenger, we decided the prudent thing was to land at KAGC, and the passenger drive to his destination. Yes, I know, not the most convenient, but the safe and prudent thing to do. There were no complaints and all turned out well. Better certainly than if we had disregarded the weather progs and plowed ahead only to find the weather at KHLG as bad or worse than forecast. That can and does happen.

So, the old adage: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, may have some meaning here.

Fly safely, and do plan ahead. If not, you too may end up a statistic.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

It Was Like Flying Into A Black Hole

Night flight is not everyone’s cup of tea, in fact, some pilots dread it. I can certainly understand why particularly in actual IMC conditions in a single engine plane. But if the conditions are right, good VFR, stars above, maybe a moon, it can be just beautiful. In the distance, airport beacons beam their greeting to the sometimes weary traveler. The twinkle of light from houses, and the stream of headlights appearing as a swarm of bees far below on otherwise unseen roads, all help make up this almost mystical experience. Another thing I miss is the friendly glow of all the cockpit instruments, reassuring at a time of relative isolation. So as long as the machinery keeps on purring, there is nothing particular to worry about. Or is there?

Well, for one, landing at night can be tricky if one doesn’t recognize certain differences from daytime flight. Depth perception is limited and can be misleading to the inexperienced pilot. For example, just before touching down for a landing, during the day one looks straight ahead judging height and distance without much difficulty. At night, with the loss of depth perception, one must use their peripheral vision as a judge of height above the runway. If you try and just stare at what appears to be the runway you may be in for a real bounce. By using peripheral vision as well as straight ahead vision for alignment, judgment of height is much improved. To help the pilot judge the correct approach angle on final, VASI (visual approach slope lights) are a big help. Strategically placed at the end of the runway, they appear red if too low, or white if too high. If one is on the 3 degree slope, the light is a mixture of red and white. In other words, a VFR glideslope. Of course there should be threshold lights, and depending on the size of the field, many others as well. If the field is uncontrolled, frequently one can set the brightness of the lighting system by clicking the unicom frequency appropriately.

I remember one flight into a small airport in southern Vermont, one very dark, moonless night. It was like flying into a black hole. Navigating to the airport was easy using VOR aids. The problem was that there were virtually no surrounding lights other than a couple of red beacons on towers on surrounding hills. Runway lights were minimal, on one side of the runway only. Thank goodness for the VASI. I would have made an ILS approach, except there wasn’t one available. Anyhow, I landed safely, and was glad when I reached the terminal area and could shut down the engines.

So, night owl or not. Make sure your eyes are night adapted, keep lighting low in the cockpit and enjoy the darkness.

Monday, July 19, 2010

It pains me to read of another crash

It pains me to read about another plane crash, with all occupants dead, and no explanation other than “pilot error”. The pilot, older, with many years in the cockpit, should have been able to avoid the crash. From what I gather, the landing was balked because the plane was too fast and possibly high for the 4000 foot runway. You just can’t force some planes down on the tarmac if they aren’t ready. The result if you try, is to bounce, possibly porpoise, even hit the prop, as happened here. And, oh no, just read of another landing accident in a similar plane with similar terrible results, several days later.

As I smoke my philosophical pipe, feet propped up, and reflect on things, I wonder why things happen as they do. Have we become complacent to the point of relying on things
rather than knowledge, inherent to what we are doing. Is basic aeronautical science too abstract for the average pilot these days? Are flight instructors too casual in their teachings? Do they put their students through the rugged paces needed to deal with those
unplanned events that can lead to serious trouble? I mean really, a pilot should be able to handle a balked landing with the adroit application of power, and then proceed to land the plane once stabilized, again at the proper speed and attitude. That, as compared to trying to force or slam the plane down on the runway, when it still has enough energy or speed to fly.

Now, in all fairness, some planes are more difficult to land than others. One of the newer fixed gear, speed demons can be difficult to land from what I read. I am of course thinking about the Cirrus. The recommended approach speed is 78kn (1.3 Vso*). That is considerably faster than a Cessna 172RG, a somewhat comparable plane. Slower, but still a notch above many. I used to fly one, and enjoyed it. Vso of the RG was 50kn, and 1.3Vso was then 65kn. Considerably slower than the high performing Cirrus. I am wondering if the pilots that are having problems landing that bird are just not ready. Maybe, and this is only my opinion, they should have more hours flying the lower performers, as the C172’s until they have more flying experience. Then transition to the next higher category. Much as what I did, moving into the light twin category from singles.

On a technical note. One must remember that the kinetic energy of a moving object is proportional to the square of velocity. Therefore, landing at Vso in a Cirrus has 1.44 the energy to dissipate as compared to the Cessna 172 also at Vso. In a crash then, or in an emergency braking situation, there is almost 50% more energy to deal with at the higher speed. That can be a problem.

So, in summary. Getting there fast is nice, but really not all that important in the scheme of things. Rather, just lean back and enjoy the process, no matter how long it takes. When you reflect on your flying experiences, years later, you will remember the process, not how long it took.

*Vso- Stall speed in the landing configuration

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

If you want to be cool, fly a J-3

It is so hot out that I think the tires of all the airplanes I flew in would melt into a huge black goo. Just been thinking of flying in the heat of summer, and how the coolest and most fun flights were in a J-3 out of Tew-Mac airport. Tew-Mac (B09), was in Tewksbury, Mass., northwest of Boston, and closed in 1997. It was a paved 1850 ft runway heading 3-21. Now converted to condos, the only flyers have feathers.

My flight would begin by doing a quick walk around the plane, including checking the fuel in the gas tank in front of the cockpit, oil and a quick kick of the tires. If alone, I would tie the tail down and proceed to hand prop the engine. It would usually start at the first pull or two. Quickly retard the throttle and untie the tail hook. Hop in to the rear seat if alone, put on the seat belt, feet on the brakes and ready to taxi.

What made it so wonderful to fly in the warm weather was the ability to fly with the side panels open. There were two, one to open up, the other down. Once the challenge of taxiing was over and the throttle advanced, I was airborne in seconds. Stepping hard on the right rudder and some back pressure on the stick was all that was required.

Once airborne, flying at about 65 knots and 500 to 1000 feet altitude one was able to look at the world below as if in a balloon rather than a plane. Slow and peaceful, almost dream like, the delightful, cool air gushing over me. So much better than flying in the tight, stuffy, un-air conditioned cockpits of the newer, faster planes. With a slight headwind, the cars moving on I-93 beneath me were moving faster than me. But that was ok, I wasn’t in a rush.

Some of the real fun was flying at a few hundred feet above the ground, over unpopulated areas, free as a bird and barely faster. The feeling of freedom was unparalleled. It was a stark contrast to the controlled airspace of today. I didn’t even have a radio, as there was no electrical system. No lights either so night flying was out. Navigating was with a map laid across my lap and my eyes scanning for landmarks. The bouncing compass was some help, but tricky to interpret.

I learned a lot about flying with the J-3. Any change in power or attitude required some input on the controls. The auto-pilot was me. The side slip was standard on final as there were no flaps to increase the rate of descent. All that said, it was a dream to fly. Noisy but forgiving. I know, as I soloed in the bird.

My first long cross country was humbling. I was heading west to Fitchburg. I thought I knew just where I was. But after flying for about 45 minutes I wasn’t so sure. Finally I spotted an airport ahead and lined up on the runway and landed after clearing myself visually. After taxing to the ramp and shutting down I walked in to the FBO and found out I wasn’t in Fitchburg but Leominster. Ahem, the effects of a crosswind were impressed on my brain then. Then a nice flight back, to the correct field.

When it was time to land, I had to review effects of cross wind and avoid hitting any planes parked just off the narrow runway. A short taxi back to the tie down and it was over for the day.
Ah yes, those were the good old days.

Stay cool and fly right.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Gear Problems Revisited

As gear problems continue to frequent the accident sites, I thought a brief discussion of landing with a failed nose gear would be of interest.

I just read about a Beech C90 that had a gear problem that resulted in a landing only on the mains. The nose gear mechanism failed, but the mains could be cranked down. Another gear failure with a similar result involved a C-177. It was reported that the plane had a gear malfunction indication, and upon landing the nose wheel failed.

As I thought about these two partial gear failures, and the resultant damage to props, engines, fuselage etc., I thought how damage could be minimized in the case of the single. Yup, you guessed it. Once you can identify that only the nose gear is involved, which may be easier said than done, land the plane as a glider. That means shut the engine off on short final, indexing the prop to horizontal with the starter. Land on the mains, keeping the wheel back until the plane stops and finally noses over. This would prevent damaging prop and engine, assuming one doesn’t stall it in. The latter can be avoided by carefully monitoring your airspeed. Not a procedure recommended for twins unless your last name begins with an S.

Regardless of the gear malfunction, it would be a good idea to do a flyby over the airport where a reliable observer is available. Tower operators usually will cooperate in this regard, weather and traffic permitting.

Remember, look for the gear down lights on final and before. Otherwise you may not “have a nice day”.

Happy and safe flying.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Some reminders to help you have a safe Memorial Day Weekend

Rather than deal with just one area of concern, I am going to explore and revisit several topics. My first subject is timely, as lately there have been several bad crashes involving runway overruns. Last December I covered some of the things a pilot must consider as they line up on final approach or before.

For the non professional, the main consideration is runway length. The other physical consideration is whether obstructions are present, either on the approach or the departure end. Wind, rain, ice etc. must be taken into account as they affect stopping distance. Wind is perhaps the most common problem encountered. One must add 10% for required landing distance for each 2 knots of tailwind, up to 10 knots. So, a tailwind will significantly increase the amount of runway needed for a landing. Therefore, before lining up on final at your favorite strip, decide whether the weather conditions will allow you to safely land. Don’t forget to have a spot on the runway picked out to make your go around decision in a timely manner. A late decision may mean ending up in the woods or worse.

The recent unfortunate death of a jogger on Hilton Head prompted me to reflect on some training maneuvers I did years ago while on final approach to short runways. The sideslip is a very useful cross control maneuver to lose altitude quickly. I remember well, being able to look out the pilots side window at what lay beneath and ahead as the plane was skewed around because of the slip. That would come in handy if the windshield became obscured, as was the case in the recent mishap.

I still wonder at the number of wheel up landings that are cited on the FAA accident lists. It is so avoidable if one just adopts a routine before and while landing. On April 10, 2009, I wrote about just this, in “Three In The Green Or Else”. A more technical article discussing gear problems was written on March 31, 2010. The main thing to do is to adopt a check procedure that can be used in almost all situations. By saying to yourself, either silently or out loud, something as: three in the green, or down and locked, after checking the lights, you can save yourself from a gear up landing. No lights, time to review your emergency procedures.

Well, that’s it for now. A few words to the wise on some old topics: runway length, forgetting to lower the gear, and what to do if you can’t see out of your windshield.

Have a happy and safe Memorial Day.

Monday, April 26, 2010

It depresses me to think that pilots are flying while taking anti-depressant medications

I am concerned about the new ruling that lets pilots fly while taking anti-depressant medication. I do not believe it is a good idea. As both a pilot and a physician, I think there are real risk potentials to flying under the influence of these pharmaceuticals.

A review of the antidepressants literature is worth summarizing here. I am including information from an article in Helpguide* subtitled “When it comes to depression, serotonin doesn’t tell the whole story.” Serotonin is a chemical that is normally found within the brain. Apparently there are many factors that play a role in depression. Serotonin, however, may only be a bit player. Therefore drugs that promote levels of serotonin in the brain, may or may not positively affect depression. I bring this up because all the drugs recently approved by the FAA: Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, and Lexapro are all part of the class of serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRI’s.

More importantly, these meds like almost all meds, may have side effects. Specifically these class of drugs (SSRI’s) may have the following side effects (SE’s):
Decreased sex drive
Weight gain or loss
Dry mouth
Although the article in Helpguide stated the above side effects as common, no actual incidence data was given. An additional warning was that there may be serious withdrawl effects if the drug is stopped too rapidly.

In the above list of possible SE’s, there are several that would be particularly bad for a pilot e.g: dizziness, anxiety, tremors, nausea and sleeepiness. Would you like to be a passenger flown by a pilot who may have some or all of these SE’s? No, I don’t think so. Or imagine a pilot executing an ILS approach in low IFR conditions, who suddenly becomes apprehensive or dizzy or even nauseas for example. Those “side effects” could lead to disaster.

I have read the argument that millions of drivers take untold millions of medications, some with deleterious effects on their driving skills. But at least someone driving with a sudden bad reaction can pull over to the curb. Yes if one is lucky. I had an example of a bad reaction to a "safe" drug while undergoing treatment for routine enlargemant of the prostate. While returning from the restroom at a local reataurant, I suddenly felt light headed and passed out cold. This was a known possible side effect of that medication. Luckily I wasn't driving or worse flying a plane! Without a co-pilot to bail one out, no pilot should be taking any medication unless they are totally familiar with it and its possible side effects.
So, I challenge the FAA medical experts to counter some of these concerns of mine. In the mean time. Don’t take any medications until you know without a doubt how it affects you.

* 4/16/2010

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Gear down and locked

Old themes are sometimes worth revisiting. This time it’s lowering the gear in time to have it fully locked in the down position. I don’t think the reported gear “collapses”on the FAA accident site are due to mechanical problems very often. Rather, it most likely is a result of dropping the gear as an afterthought at the last minute

It takes some time to lower the gear and have the locks engage. Different planes take different times. Some lower in less than 5 seconds, others take longer. My old Cessna 172RG went through some gyrations to extend. The old Mooneys’ gear was lowered by the pilot moving a large chrome handle from the horizontal to the vertical. It took an effort, and the plane sometimes did a bit of a dip, but you knew the gear were down. The way you can tell if the gear is down and locked is when you get one or three green lights. There is a micro type switch at the wheels that closes when the gear is down in the locked position. I must add that I am not an A&E mechanic and that the specifics of gear operation and the light indications should be verified for each airplane. Yesterday I spoke with a licensed A&E who suggested that a persistence of a red transit light should be a warning that all is not secure. Not all planes have a red transit light however. Therefore if the green light or lights don’t come on, beware. Options are: recycle the gear. If still not right, try the mechanical crank down method. Some pilots will try to fly over the runway and have an observer give their impression. Just be prepared for a rough landing without the greens being lit. One last bit. Usually the bulbs can be tested by pressing on the light covers. This should be done before deciding that one or all the wheels are not down and locked if one of the lights is not on.

So watching for the lights is important. The next time you are on the web go the FAA site and check out the number of “gear ups” that are reported every weekend on the Monday log. On the 29March report, 7 out of 25 accidents involved the gear.

In my article: Three In The Green Or Else!, 10April2009, I discuss various ways to try and insure that the pilot lowers the gear before landing. They worked for me for years and I can recommend them. Try them out. Good habits can save one from a bunch of headaches and bills. Happy and safe landings.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Do all the latest digital gadgets make one a better, safer pilot?

The other day while sitting at a traffic light, I watched a young driver texting furiously in between glancing up at the traffic signal. Amazingly the driver did not miss the change from red to green by many milliseconds but……it made me wonder how many pilots were doing the same thing while at the controls. Talking on the cell phone, texting, getting the latest stock results or some such other nonsense. How many milliseconds did I have to avoid that bogey (errant plane) streaking across my path? Just enough, because I wasn’t doing any of the above. It doesn’t take much distraction to miss a frequency from center, or an urgent call from approach to turn immediately or descend or climb. You get the point, one must pay attention.

Yes, your full undivided attention is required to safely navigate the current skies. Tempting as it may be to watch a video, do a sudoku or read a magazine, your eyes need to be on your primary flight data: altitude, heading, attitude and airspeed at least once a minute. The rest of the time you should be looking out the windshield for traffic or just enjoying the scenery. Even while flying on autopilot, regular checks of the above must be made. Autopilots do fail, often at the worst times.

Some time ago at a local air show at Rock Hill Airport (UZA), I was looking at the cockpit setup of a new C-172. Some of the new fancy models cost just under $300,000 and still only go 120 knots. I couldn’t get over the Glass Displays. Two large screens that could be filled with all kinds of data such as: GPS data, satellite radar, nav data and who knows what else. All the above in addition to the basics listed above. What struck me between the eyes was the paucity of “raw data” or basic instruments. Directly under the two mega- screens are three normal sized dials. The airspeed indicator, artificial horizon and altimeter. Where is a back-up vor/ils gage? What happens when something goes haywire with those two big screens? Are you prepared to go back to the basic three gages above?

Well those are some of the questions I ask when I read about pilots flying into the ground while executing an ILS approach. Do you have the latest correct approach plates out in front of you clipped to the yoke? Does anyone still know what an NDB is? OK I’ve been around too long. Maybe, but I warrant it is easier to go to a fancy big screen with follow the arrows type game plan if you once thoroughly understood the old fashioned way. So what I’m saying is: when you have the ability to navigate the airways and land at minimums on the old gages maybe then you can transition to the big screens.

To summarize. Flying is an activity that requires a lot from participants sometimes, with periods of tedium at others. But, it should never be dull or boring. If it becomes so, rather than turn on your digital toys, land the plane and park it until you are ready to seriously fly. And please don’t ever forget the basics.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Who me worry?

It is just awful to read about air carrier crashes that are in part due to crew incompetence. The example that immediately comes to mind is the Buffalo crash earlier this winter. That crash was the result of two people who shouldn't have been in the cockpit of that (or any plane in the case of the captain). The co-pilot wasn't nearly trained /experienced enough, but in time she may well have been ok. The captain, who flunked several flight checks, clearly didn't belong there.

So, what are the minimum hours of flight time a new hire should have before flying as a professioanl in the right seat? Are 250 hours enough or are 1500 more appropriate. Remember a co-pilot or first officer can be upgraded to captain the instant the captain becomes incapcitated.
Well obviously, the more hours the better unless they aren't "good hours". That is hours spent exposed to all the complex facets of aviation, like flying in all types of weather conditions. Learning to make timely decisions such as going to an alternate when things are really bad. Or knowing how to communicate properly, not only with ATC but "company" to ask for help if and when it is needed. Are pilots too dependent and lulled by all the automation aboard the newer planes?
I am afraid that some of the newer academy trained pilots get the minimum exposure to the really bad situations a pilot may experience. Such as losing an engine on take-off in the fog and mist. A simulator just can't make the hair stand up on the back of your head or make you stain your pants the way the real thing can. Getting an inch or so of rime ice on the wings that won't come off as the boots are inflated will do it though. So you get the point. Training for two or three hundred hours in sunny Florida or California just isn't going to expose you to many weather extremes. And the weather is the number one bugaboo after all. I realize that there are various ways to get valuable flight experience, but never can it be "enough" in two or three hundred hours.
In my case as I earned my ratings at my own speed, it was done in years rather than months. The advantages of that was it gave me time to learn and integrate all my experiences. I learned to deal with mountains, ice and snow, coastal weather,the far West as well as many different type airports, as I flew in different areas of the country. Some more like a cow pasture to the biggies such as KBOS, KJFK, KATL and KOKC. I just couldn't have done it all in six months. And yes I realize that it is not practical for someone interested in a flying career to take ten years to get their ratings, but you get the idea. Too short a time, and too few hours, with limited exposure to different areas, just won't make one a smart experienced safe pilot.

The recent expose on public tv about the regional air carriers touched on some of these things. The limited training some commuter pilots have. The pay and long hours all are negatives that need to be addressed. I am not as relaxed as I used to be when contemplating air travel. I worry that some of the pilots are so reliant on all the auto systems the newer planes have, that they won't be able to respond when the alarm bells go off. Not the least of my worries is that I have more time in my logbook than one or both of the pilots up front.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Snow another cause of low IFR

This recent snow storm caused me to remember a flight I made in a Pa-31 Navaho Chieftan in the middle of the night into Saranac Lake, NY (KSLK) one January. I got a call late in the evening from the FBO whom I flew for occasionally. They needed me to fly to KSLK and pick up an injured skier and bring him back to Burlington,Vt as he apparently was badly hurt. I agreed to fly the charter . When I arrived the plane was already on the tarmac, free of ice and snow, having been hangared. I checked the weather and filed an IFR roundtrip to Saranac Lake and back. The weather at Burlington was not bad. Light to moderate snow 1 mile viz and a ceiling on the order of 1000 feet. It wasn't clear exactly what to expect at KSLK. The plan then was to fly to Saranac, shoot the ILS and hope to get in. If I couldn't land my alternate was back in Burlington, if not there Montreal or maybe even Albany.

The flight to Saranac Lake took about 15 minutes. I filed for 6000' the minimum safe altitude due to a 3800' mountain located only 8 miles to the SE of the airport. I made sure my pitot heat was on and frequently checked the wing leading edges with the ice light to make sure there was no ice accumulation. The approach went well. Intercepting the localizer about 10 miles out and then tracking it and the glide slope to the minimum altitude (1863'). As I didn't know if the field was above minimums, I studied the missed approach procedure and hoped for the best. Fortunately, as we neared the MDA (minimum descent altitude) the field showed up through the snow and haze. It was a welcome site as otherwise I would have had to execute the missed approach and try again or head back. The landing went well in spite of three to four inches of fresh snow on the runway. Feeling somewhat relieved, I taxied to the terminal and spotted the waiting ambulance.

The patient was carefully placed in the back of the plane and strapped down in the stretcher. A nurse came with him and we headed back. Fortunately, Burlington stayed well above minimums so landing there was no problem.

The moral of the story. Sometimes you have to make a flight without knowing exactly what conditions to expect. As long as you follow all the approved procedures (especially MDA's) you can give it a try. If unsuccessful, go around on a published missed approach procedure and try again, fuel permitting or go to your alternate.

Friday, January 1, 2010

You can't land when even the birds are grounded

It is awful to read about skilled pilots trying to land in the fog, way below minimums. Even trying unsuccessfully to land in heavy IFR conditions at an airport with only an Rnav approach. You don't believe me? Go to the December 09 NTSB reports. One pilot on a short business flight in Texas in a Bonanza tried to land in 1/4 mile visibility with an indefinite ceiling flying a presumed RNAV approach with 1300 ft minimums. This guy had all the ratings including ATP, Instr. instructor etc. He augured in 750 ft off the runway. What was he thinking?

The next one was also in Texas in a Pa-34. Another qualified pilot (on paper): Commercial-Instr.-Instructor. There was no published instrument approach at this airport and the nearest reported weather reports were about 20 miles away. Although they had almost VFR weather there, it was unknown at the desired destination. Anyway it did not deter this maniac from trying to make up his own approach and land in uncertain conditions. He was observed by approach control to desend to 700 ft and then disappear from radar. He crashed in a body of water killing the occupants. That was irresponsible.

The moral of the story is not to second guess the weather and fly only published approaches observing all the Notams and not busting minimums. This latter thing, busting minimums is a classic killer and part of the "get home itus" syndrome. I remember a case of that I had several years ago when trying to return to Kenansville,NC from Raleigh in my C-340. I got so close but at minimums couldn't see a thing. Fog! Rather than try again, sometimes that works, but it was dark out and unlikely to improve so I returned to Raleigh and rented a car to get home. Frustrating yes, but I lived to write about it.

So if you want to avoid the above fates, don't try to beat the system. Rather, follow the rules, use good sound judgement and live to fly another day.