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Flight by Reference to Instruments

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

Monday at about 4:00 PM I found out I’d have to make a trip to a New York client on Tuesday, a run of about 130 miles. A quick check of the weather showed a forecast for overcast skies with scattered showers, but with the overcast at an acceptable altitude for flying. Great news – I’d be able to get up at 6:00 AM instead of 4:00 AM. Admittedly only two hours, but at that time of morning night, it matters.

Early morning weather briefing, and out to the plane. Still doable under Visual Flight Rules, though I’ll be at about half my usual altitude. Perhaps 10 minutes into the trip, and the visibility begins deteriorating, with light rain. NEXRAD shows nothing onerous ahead of me, so I go down 500 feet and continue on. It’s not getting any better.

I make a decision to switch to Instrument Flight Rules, request a clearance, and in a few moments I’ve shifted from level flight with lousy visibility along the shoreline, to a climb out over the water, with zero visibility. A grayish-white sphere with nothing beyond the wingtips. Rain mists against the windshield, and a few drops work their way in through the defroster vent.

I’m unsettled. Because over the last twenty plus years, though I’ve flown almost fifteen hundred hours, only eighty-two of them were in actual instrument conditions, nothing visible out the window.

I know I can do this. I’ve got a license for it, I’m legally current, and there’s nothing about this weather that poses a significant risk. But my level of confidence corresponds to eighty-two hours of experience, not fifteen hundred, and that transition is disconcerting.

When I had eighty-two hours of total flight time, I was three months past being cut loose for solo flight, and one month from taking my license flight exam. Not a point at which you feel terribly sure of yourself.

There’s a tendency to slip backward, if you permit it to happen. Which is probably what was at work this morning, when I was getting ready to launch. The weather was an ideal candidate for gaining some real-world instrument experience. But I opted for the easy route: staying low and looking out the window.

Though it can fly better than I can, I eschew the autopilot. And I do deviate from altitude and heading now and then, but fairly rapidly get back on course. And when I check the radar track the next day, my divergences aren’t very noticeable. Certainly not enough for me to get scolded by Air Traffic Control. And not remotely enough for a NASA form.

Eventually, I get turned onto the ILS for my destination, and in a few moments the runway resolves itself in the haze. Shortly afterward, I’m fastening the straps on the airplane cover and getting ready for a day of work.

The uncertainties are a tough thing to share. To another instrument pilot, this would seem to be business as usual. To a muggle, the fact that I flew, in an actual airplane, transcends pretty much any details I might provide. So today’s small victory will remain internal.

But it’s still a victory.


Monday, July 22nd, 2013

I’m going to guess that more than half of the blogs out there consist primarily of regular entries beginning with “I haven’t been blogging much lately…” Well, guilty as charged. The last entry here was more than six months ago. You see, I’ve been busy with clients, traveling, tied up on other projects…


No excuses. I ran across this a few days ago: http://www.hughhowey.com/my-advice-to-aspiring-authors. Now I’m sure that I’d need scientific notation to enumerate all the ‘advice to aspiring authors’ articles ever written. But one of Mr. Howey’s key points is to take the endeavor seriously, as you would any other thing of importance. So thanks for the kick in the tush, Mr. H.

And on to other things.

I was out of the country when Asiana 214 slammed into the seawall at the approach end of runway 28L in San Francisco. At first, all I knew of the event was the fuzzy picture of the burned-out hulk, as viewed on the ancient television set in the living room of our bed and breakfast in Bermuda. Tough to get any useful information, even allowing for the fact that there really isn’t much useful information to be had so soon after such an event.


This is traditionally the point at which we say that it’s improper to draw conclusions until all the facts are in. But I’m not an NTSB investigator, or an AP reporter, or a talking head on the television. I’m just an opinionated guy who flies the small stuff from time to time, weighing in with his two cents.

So, with those caveats taken care of, I’ll say that it sure looks like the crew of that airplane screwed up big-time. If you want the particulars, the Wikipedia article about the crash is pretty complete. But it left me thinking that this wasn’t a very ‘satisfying’ accident.

What I mean by that is that it wasn’t a case of a crew fighting against a major mechanical failure, or one that somehow wound up in an impossible-to-anticipate situation. It was just a couple of guys who, on a perfectly clear day with no significant wind, flew a perfectly-functioning 200 million dollar airplane into the ground.

And it’s even more troubling in context. Consider Air France 447; a highly trained crew stalling an Airbus 330 from 38,000 feet all the way down into the icy Atlantic. Or Colgan Air 3407, in which an admittedly fatigued crew managed to stall a Bombardier Q400 into the ground outside of Buffalo.

These are the sort of accidents that guys like me are supposed to be having, not the professionals.

And where it leaves me is with my view of the pros as steely-eyed aviation gods, with thousand of hours of experience and hyper-effective training, starting to erode. Could they perhaps be only human, and subject to the same foibles as the rest of us?

If that’s the case, and the evidence is increasingly pointing in that direction, then maybe this is as good as it gets, and we just need to expect an accident like this every few years. And all in all, it’s really not that bad, when you think about it. Asiana 214 killed three people; nearly that many die every hour in traffic accidents.

But it’s still troubling. And I can’t help but think that we’re missing something.

Getting Back On The Horse

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Last Saturday was one of those days that divides time into a before and an after. After sixty uneventful years, our airport experienced its first fatal accident. A landing aircraft, for reasons unknown, veered off the runway and crashed into a section of woods between two homes, killing one person on board and severely injuring two others. Being at the other end of the field, I didn’t know about it until several hours later.

Mercifully, I wasn’t one of the first on the scene, and don’t have images of explosions and burned passengers imprinted in my memory. In fact, I had no real desire to visit the crash site; I didn’t look closely until several days later, after the NTSB had been and gone. Beyond the charred trees though, there wasn’t much visible – when a fiberglass airplane burns, little remains.

The field reopened the next day, and as I had plans for a trip, I could see no reason not to launch. No logical reason, that is.

We all process our mortality in our own way. Most of the time, death happens offstage, out of the way, where we don’t have to deal with it directly. We’re not supposed to have our noses rubbed in it on a beautiful summer morning, amid blue skies and a pleasant breeze.

Our airfield is slightly less than half a mile long, and on takeoff there’s a fleeting moment when you start thinking that faith does play an element in this. Tach and manifold pressure normal, ground speed increasing, past 50 knots and I need 68 before I can fly… those trees are coming up awfully fast. Ease back on the yoke and we leave the ground; wheels up so we can climb as quickly as possible, and clear the trees by as much as possible. The airplane’s performance is documented and predictable – a table in the operating handbook tells what distance is needed to leave the ground, and to clear a fifty-foot obstacle. The engine and the rest of the plane are meticulously maintained, the fuel is proper and uncontaminated by water, and there’s nothing challenging about today’s weather. So why do I feel like I’ve cheated death?

Level at cruise altitude, autopilot on, new age music on the player, and some time to pause and reflect. Perhaps it would simplify things to remove this risk factor from my life. There would be financial benefits, too. I notice a small, lone sailboat somewhere off the coast of Newport, and I wonder if it’s pilot is having similar thoughts.

Most likely, I’ll be dead fifty years from now. I can run my life in a manner that will stretch that time for as long as possible, but the years would be unbearably empty. No bicycling. No pastry. No flying. And a bunch more nos that I can’t even think of right now.

All told, I think I’d rather spend the time Living, even at the risk of shortening it some. I push the disengage button on the autopilot and fly it by hand for a while. After all, that’s why I’m here.

An impressive technical achievement

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

There are a number of services out there that take the raw data feed provided by the FAA of flights in progress and convert it into something more interesting than a spreadsheet full of number. Flightaware.com  seems to be the most popular of them, and as it works just fine for both private flights and air carriers, it can be a pretty handy thing.

Less so if you’re a celebrity, and you’re not particularly interested in having your private jet met by crowds of paparazzi every time you land somewhere. So the FAA created something called BARR, which stands for Block Aviation Registration Request. Get on the list, and the FAA will expunge your registration number from the data provided to third parties. Problem solved.

Except for a couple of techie types who saw the BARR program itself as a problem that needed to be solved. With a bit of work, they created Openbarr.net.They’ve got a server that listens on a number of aviation frequencies and performs voice recognition to identify registration numbers of interest, thereby identifying planes whether their registration number is blocked or not.

From an engineer’s perspective, I’m quite impressed that it was possible to make this work… though I’m not sure just how reliable it can be. I suspect that the narrower the problem, the easier. That is, while it might be tough to generate a list of registration numbers detected, it would be somewhat easier to determine whether, for example, the registration number for Barbara Streisand’s plane was heard.

And of course, once you get past the technological achievement there are the privacy concerns. Part of me is of the mindset that if someone wants some privacy I’ll respect their wishes. But on the other hand, its tough to get upset about someone automating a process that could easily be done by a minimum-wage journalism intern sitting in front of an air-band scanner and writing down what he hears.

Bottom line, if I were Mr. Hoffman or Rezchikov (Openbarr’s creators), I’d run openbarr.net for a while, enjoy the fame, dodge the arrows, and then shut it down, saying ‘it was fun’. But on the other hand, the genie is now out of the bottle. It would be pretty trivial for someone else to replicate their effort and place the result in the public domain. So the lives of the paparazzi will remain incrementally simplified, at least until the next round.


Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

After more than eight hours of flight, I found myself at Fort Lauderdale Executive airport, with a nice line guy handing me a cold bottle of water. Another delivered my rental car right to the proper side of the plane with the air conditioner already running, as is the Florida tradition.

Mostly, the trip was uneventful. But the third leg underscored for me what a good metaphor private aviation is for life. After stopping in Brunswick, Georgia to buy gas, I checked the local weather between there and our destination, only to find the area peppered with heavy rain and thunderstorms. A full-blown thunderstorm will chew up a small plane and spit it out in parts; surviving such an encounter is unusual. One option was to spend the night in Brunswick and depart early the next morning. But stepping back, I realized that I was in a situation similar to the one every new pilot is in when he starts flying. Take too many risks and you die. But take no risks at all, and you’ll spend your flying life never straying far from your home airport. So the problem becomes one not of risk minimization, but rather risk optimization. Where’s the sweet spot in the curve where you’re pushing new horizons but are still safe?

Its really no different from what we do with the rest of our lives. Personally, I tend to err on the side of caution. And I’m probably poorer for it, not so much financially (though maybe that, too), but in terms of life experience.

In the airplane, I’m fortunately equipped with some equipment that’s able to view weather radar, but with an image that’s not quite current. I’m also equipped with a device that can detect lightning strikes, but does nothing to detect dangerous storm system that aren’t yet at the lightning-making stage. During the trip, I was talking to an air traffic controller whose job was making sure that planes didn’t collide, but who was also able to provided some limited information about weather . She could help me avoid the storm cells, but she had her own agenda that came first.

So essentially, I was integrating my own observations with those of others, and with the needs of others. The penalty for doing badly was potentially very uncomfortable. It might have been easier to wait out the storm in Brunswick. But my though was that the problem was a manageable one, even if it ended with a stop somewhere in the middle, or a turn back to Brunswick.

We made it to Fort Lauderdale with a plane well washed by the rain but none the worse for wear. And I’m an incrementally more experienced pilot, with a incrementally better understanding of my own strengths and limitations. And that feels good.

I only wish I was better at taking the lesson back to real life.

Eclipsing a tradition

Monday, April 16th, 2012

This one’s been in the works for a while. Five years, at least. Over that time, it appears I’ve created something of a tradition. Around November, I decide that it would be a Great Idea to fly my own plane down to the Bahamas. This is not a particularly challenging flight aeronautically; basically you fly to Fort Lauderdale and make a left. It only becomes non-trivial when things like money and time become factors. In other words, in the Real World.

So at the appointed time, usually a bit before Thanksgiving, I continue the tradition by sending $10 off for the appropriate charts, after which I start drawing lines, looking at hotel rates, and adding up numbers. And then, after a while, I look at my bank account and my work schedule, and I quietly fold the chart up and put it on the shelf.

But last year, I decided to do something different. I set up an automatic monthly transfer to an unused bank account, and three months before the target date, I started informing my clients as to when I’d be out of town. So in principal, this should actually work. Two weeks, 2500 miles, two countries, six cities, ten airports, and at least one mouse (we’re stopping at Disney World on the way back). Doubtlessly there will be some anomalies along the way, but that’s okay – I’ve built a few extra days into the Master Plan.

More as it unfolds.