Aerobatics Versus Flying IFR

I was chatting with the impossibly energetic Sean D. Tucker at Oshkosh this summer and was, as usual, knocked over by his schedule. In addition to flying a bunch of air shows and devoting endless hours to being chairman of EAA Young Eagles, he was running around the world to climb extremely tall mountains.

To that list Sean told me he wanted to add learning to fly IFR. For all of his thousands of hours in the cockpit Sean does not fly IFR. And he is afraid to fly in the clouds. He told me it just flat out scares him not to be able to see the ground or the horizon.

For many of us who have watched Sean fly in every imaginable attitude–and some unimaginable to me–very close to the ground the idea that flying in the clouds frightens him is a surprise. But I have heard that from other air show performers. They just don’t like being in the clouds, and many simply won’t do it.

There are exceptions, of course. Gene Soucy comes to mind. Gene has been flying aerobatics and air shows for decades, but he also flew a career with the airlines which is totally instrument flying. Gene had even rigged up a set of removable IFR instruments in his Christen Eagle so he could punch into a cloud when necessary while trying to ferry his airplane from show to show during the many years he was part of the Eagles team. But Gene is something of an exception.

The thought of tumbling through the air in one of those gyroscopic maneuvers Sean and others have perfected scares the crap out of me. But, for me, flying into a cloud seems as ordinary as raising the landing gear. Why the big difference?

My guess is that the top aerobatic pilots like Sean almost never look inside the cockpit. When you watch those many “hero cam” videos of them flying their routine the head is in constant motion. They look rapidly from side to side at the wing tips. They throw their heads back to see the horizon and the ground which is not in its usual place. They even sometimes look straight ahead, but only briefly, and not at the instruments.

In aerobatics the view of the horizon and the ground is everything. That’s why many who fly competitive aerobatics put those protractor devices on the wingtips to visually line up the attitude angles with the horizon.

In instrument flying the horizon is also critical, but it’s artificial. The objective is to keep the airplane close to level. The maximum bank angle used in conventional IFR flying is 30 degrees. The goal is to constantly compare the indications from the primary flight instruments to stay on course, altitude and target airspeed while moving your head as little as possible. The big, abrupt head movements aerobatic pilots make are the perfect setup for vertigo when flying in the clouds.

Obviously military fighter pilots learn to fly all sorts of unusual attitudes based only on instruments so it’s not an impossible task. But even the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels don’t fly the extreme maneuvers that Sean and the other top air show pilots routinely fly.

I guess it all comes down to each of our own comfort zones. I see that Sean has checked off another of his mounting climb goals, so maybe IFR flying is next on the list. One thing I know for sure is that Sean has about a 1,000 percent better chance of becoming comfortable flying in the clouds than I do flying any part of his routine

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 6 Comments

Finally, A Real Life Test of an Oil Additive

Most of us grew up in the age of STP and Marvel Mystery Oil. And there were dozens of other potions that, when dumped into our engine’s crankcase, increased horsepower, eliminated wear and were even likely to make you more attractive to girls.

Each miracle additive had its supporters, and they all had reams of “data” showing exactly how much benefit they delivered. Which additive was best and exactly how it worked its magic was fodder for endless discussion among those of us who cared about engines, power and speed.

We’ve seen fewer miracle engine oil additives in aviation, probably because unlike the automotive world, flying is regulated. But regulation never totally stopped airplane owners or mechanics from slipping in a slippery substance they were convinced made things better.

But regulation of aviation engine lubricants is odd. There isn’t an FAA specification for lubricants. In general, if the engine manufacturer approves an oil for use in its engines then the FAA agrees.

Aircraft piston engine lubricant specs that do exist are based on military specs developed in decades past before the Navy and Air Force transitioned to turbine power. These “mil specs” are a solid foundation for creating a lubricant, but they haven’t been updated in many years because the military no longer has a requirement.

It is possible to get an FAA STC for an oil without also earning the stamp of approval of the engine makers. But if the engine manufacturer refuses to bless the oil, or an additive, the engine owner can be left in limbo if problems arise.

Piston airplane owners, and more often their mechanics, are wary of new oil formulations. Even a technology as tried and true and many decades old as multi-viscosity is not trusted by all in aviation. Many mechanics and engine overhaul shops are firmly convinced that only single grade oil can protect their engines, and a few shops absolutely insist that only that oldest of old fashioned lubricants be used.

Oil companies have tried to introduce new lubricant technologies with mixed success. About 30 years ago an all synthetic oil held great promise to reduce wear and oil consumption and I had terrific experience with it in the Bonanza I owned then. But the synthetic wasn’t good at suspending the sludge created by an air cooled engine burning leaded gasoline and many owners had problems. The oil, even though approved, and even recommended, by engine makers, was withdrawn.

The biggest problem with any lubricant is that many piston engines develop problems prematurely. When that happens something must be blamed, and the oil is near the top of the list of suspects. So if an engine runs smoothly on to TBO and beyond whatever oil was in there is praised and credited. That’s one reason why single grade oils fly on when they have been abandoned years ago by other piston engine operators even though a multi-weight oil likely would have had the same results.

So, for all of these reasons I’m very happy to see that Continental Motor Services (CMS) and Aircraft Specialties Lubricants (ASL) have gotten together to conduct a structured test of CamGuard, the oil additive ASL has produced for several years. CMS is the old Mattituck which is the division of Continental that installs, repairs and maintains engines and airplanes.

ASL claims that CamGuard helps prevent engine corrosion which is particularly destructive of the cam lobes and lifters. The company also says the additive reduces wear, retards internal deposit buildup and helps prevent “scuffing” of moving metal parts during engine start. In other words, CamGuard claims to do everything everyone of us piston engine owners wants.

CamGuard is “accepted” by the FAA so you’re not breaking any rules by using it. But as far as I know neither Continental or Lycoming have officially endorsed the additive one way or the other. That’s why I find it so encouraging that Continental is conducting this study to collect objective data in real world use.

Airplane owners who have had engines overhauled or repaired by CMS can join the study. The owners will supply an oil sample at each oil change, and some of the engines will undergo “enhanced” inspections looking for signs of wear, corrosion and so on. The study will cover the 18-month warranty period on the engine.

I’m really looking forward to the results of the study and I hope they are conclusive one way or the other. We are surrounded by myth and superstition when it comes to aircraft engine oil, and I hope we can finally see real convincing results to guide us. There have been laboratory tests, but this is real world flying.

Stay tuned.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 13 Comments

FAA As Hangar Use Tiebreaker

The FAA has issued a policy statement reinforcing its stance that hangars on airports that receive federal funds must be used for aeronautical purposes. That makes sense. But the rub is what constitutes an aeronautical use.

The goal of the FAA policy is to prevent people from using hangars for non-aviation purposes and forcing an active airplane out into the weather. That’s great. Who wants to leave their airplane outside while hangars are stuffed full of boats, motorcycles, recreational vehicles, furniture, whatever because the hangar offers cheaper storage.

But the FAA policy should only be used as a tiebreaker.

What shouldn’t be governed by FAA policy is use of privately owned hangars. In general it’s not possible to buy property on a publicly owned airport so people who want to build their own hangars for personal or business use lease the land. In the typical arrangement the private owner bears the cost of building and maintaining the structure and at the end of the land lease ownership of the actual hangar building reverts to the airport.

The airport authority and the private hangar owner can make their own deal with use stipulations when the lease is negotiated. The FAA should have no say in that agreement. If the airport authority doesn’t like the deal it can change it when the land lease eventually expires.

The other circumstance where the FAA should stay out of airport business is when, as is increasingly common, there is an excess of hangar capacity. At many airports where 10 years ago the best you could do was get on a hangar waiting list there is now an oversupply. I know at my airport not every T-hangar is rented, and the airport authority hasn’t raised rents in many years.

When a hangar is empty and no airplane owner wants to rent it the airport authority should put the space to the best possible use. Empty hangars can store airport equipment, or maybe even bring in much needed funds by renting to somebody who wants to store something other than an aircraft. So long as no airplane owner is left out in the weather, an empty hangar should be put to use in whatever way is most effective for the airport.

But what about the circumstance where there is a hangar shortage and not every airplane owner who wants to move his airplane inside can rent space? Let’s say you just bought an airplane new to you, or finished a many years long building project and your pride and joy is forced outside. But in a hangar somebody else has his boats, cars and other stuff and no airplane. Or how about the person who is on the fourth year of building the horizontal tail of his project, a task that would fit in a single-car garage? Should your actively flown airplane be left out of hangar space being used by people who don’t have an active airplane?

It’s a tough situation. Maybe the hangar tenant used to fly and intends to buy another active airplane and doesn’t want to give up the space. Or maybe the tenant just likes having all of his stuff inside, even though that stuff isn’t an actively flying airplane. Those people are very much in love with their hangar deal and don’t want to give them up.

That’s where I see the FAA policy as a tiebreaker. If you have an actively flying, in license airplane and can’t rent a hangar on a public airport, but some hangars are being used by people who don’t have actively flying airplanes, I think the FAA should come down in favor of the airplane owner who flies.

That’s why it’s important that the FAA policy now specifically says that final assembly of a homebuilt airplane is an aeronautical use and won’t be forced out of a hangar. The scope of final assembly of most airplanes needs to be done in a hangar. The policy offers
protection for builders that was never specifically stated before.

And the FAA policy also favors the actively flying airplane owner. When there is a hangar space crunch the airplane flying and using the airport should get the nod.

Overall the FAA policy won’t matter one way or the other to most of us. At many airports hangars are emptying out and few airport managers are going to be looking to toss tenants when they already have unrented space. But at those airports where demand still exceeds supply the nod should go to the owner of the actively flying airplane. Breaking the tie is what the FAA can do.

Let me know what you think.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 16 Comments

Pilots Killed Piston Engine FADEC Advances

An almost universal lament among pilots is that we are flying piston engines that use decades old technology. That’s not entirely true, but you would be hard pressed to find a magneto on any other type of piston engine still in production.

Continental spent a ton of dough to change that situation starting in the late 1990s and its efforts were shot down. Not by the stuck in the mud regulators at the FAA, but by pilots. The very people who say they want technology advances.

The really big improvements in other piston engines such as those in cars and trucks have come from computer control of the entire engine operation. Automated and constantly adjusting control of ignition and fuel have made automotive engines more efficient, more responsive, easier to start, more drivable and more durable. Why can’t we have that in our piston airplanes?

In aviation we call computerized control of an engine full-authority digital engine computer (FADEC). The term came from the turbine engine world where redundant computers were handed the job of controlling fuel flow and other operating parameters to set power, and more importantly, always keep the jet engine within operating limits. I can’t think of a jet in production that doesn’t have FADEC engines.

Before FADEC pilots of jets would be charging down the runway gently moving the throttles to try to find a target fan rpm (N1) or engine pressure ration (EPR). Move the levers too much and you could overspeed and damage the engine. If you don’t move the levers far enough the engines don’t put out the expected power and takeoff performance suffers. Just when a pilot should be monitoring directional control and critical systems during takeoff roll in the pre-FADEC days we had our eyes glued to a couple gauges while we doinked around with the power levers.

Operating most piston engines doesn’t demand quite as much attention, but mismanagement of the controls can damage the engine, or result in less power than expected. FADEC can simplify piston engine operation to nothing more than moving a lever just like stepping on a gas pedal. FADEC would automatically optimize the mixture for all atmospheric and operating conditions to gain maximum engine performance and efficiency while also protecting the engine from the pilot who can use the engine controls in a damaging way.

A big hurdle on the way to piston FADEC was an uninterruptible electrical power source. The traditional piston engine with its magnetos and carburetor or mechanical fuel injection operates with total independence from the aircraft electrical system. And that’s good. Many piston airplanes have very rudimentary electrical systems, and more importantly, have only one of them.

At first it looked like only airplanes with totally redundant transport aircraft type electrical systems could use FADEC. To install the Porsche PFM engine Mooney created such an electrical system. The electrics worked OK, but the engine didn’t pan out.

But Continental was successful in convincing the FAA that a FADEC backup battery could do the job. FADEC doesn’t use that much power so it’s not hard to have a constantly charged dedicated battery with enough power to equal the fuel endurance of the airplane. If the main electrical system failed totally the backup battery would keep FADEC and the engine running until the fuel was gone.

There were several fits and starts on the way to FADEC certification. But Continental succeeded, first in naturally aspirated engines, and then for the turbos. I flew several iterations of the system and the final go worked very well. Just push the throttle and let the computer manage the engine. I even had the magnetic pickups installed on an accessory gear in my new engines in 2000 in the certainty that I would be converting to FADEC before long.

But Continental needed an airplane manufacturer to really launch FADEC. A logical target was Beech with the Continental powered Bonanza and Baron. Beech engineers loved the idea. Beech customers hated it. When Beech asked prospects they learned that not only didn’t sales prospects want FADEC, many wouldn’t buy an airplane with the system.

The problem was mixture control. Many, even most pilots, thought they were smarter than the FADEC computer. They wanted to run lean of peak or rich of peak, or somehow set the mixture to suit their conviction of how it should be done. FADEC, on the other hand, would run lean of peak  under some power settings and conditions, but then switch rich of peak for other conditions. And it did this without considering pilot opinion, only what testing showed was optimum for the engine.

So FADEC, fully developed and certified, faded away. Pilots who demand new technology, it turns out, don’t really want it if it interferes with lore, superstition, and years of experience.

It’s interesting that this is not an issue in some newer design engines such as the Rotax that doesn’t have decades of operating lore behind it. And if new diesels are successful they will all be FADEC so the pilot never had the chance to diddle with engine controls and won’t miss it.

But for the big majority of piston engines I now expect to die, or at least hang up my flying shoes, with mechanical fuel injection, magnetos and that supremely important mixture control still flying in most piston airplanes. My guess is that piston engine mixture and rpm operating techniques have passed into the realm of pilot religion, and all religions resist the new no matter what science may show. Just ask Copernicus.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 34 Comments

The Other Stall

If you have been flying for more than a few years you probably believe most stall/spin accidents happen in the traffic pattern. And you are likely convinced that the base-to-final turn is the deadliest spot for stall accidents. And I don’t blame you. That’s what you have been told by instructors and other “industry” types. It just doesn’t happen to be true. And hasn’t been true for many years.

Richard Collins and I have written many times that the takeoff and initial climb is the most common phase of flight for a serious stall accident. And the departure stall is the deadliest. But pilots either don’t believe us, or the myth of the base-to-final stall is simply too enormous for anybody to dethrone.

As usual, there is a caveat in the numbers. If you look only at homebuilts the deadly traffic pattern stall accident still dominates. But that fact also shines a light on the progress made in the certified world, and the very difficult and perhaps impossible task of reducing the number of takeoff/departure stall accidents.

I hadn’t run the stall accident numbers in several years, but the American Bonanza Society has. I recently completed the ABS online proficiency training course for my flight review and the section on stalls reminded me that nothing much has changed. In the Bonanza series takeoff/departure stall accounted for 40 percent of the stall accidents compared to 34 percent on landing. If you add the stall accidents that happened during missed approach or balked landing the power-on climbing away stall accident is even more common than one happening during approach or landing.

More importantly, no Bonanza stalled in the traffic pattern during the 10 years studied. And most landing stalls occurred over the runway and serious injury was uncommon. The takeoff/departure stalls, however, were most often fatal or caused serious injury.

This wasn’t always true. At one time, just as in the homebuilt record, traffic pattern stall accidents dominated the certified world, and were often fatal. The change in that record had to come from improved flying qualities designed into production airplanes.

A stall accident is caused by a combination of pilot decisions and airplane behavior. The pilot decision part comes when, for whatever reason, the pilot exceeds the stalling angle of attack. The airplane flying qualities component comes after the stall happens.

The Bonanza is a perfect example of how understanding of, and acceptance of, stall behavior changed over the years. The Model 35 Bonanza was designed right after the end of World War II and certified in 1947. Anybody who has flown one knows the V-tail Bonanza will almost certainly drop a wing very rapidly when stalled with full flaps. In 1947 that was perfectly “normal” and acceptable.

In 1984 Beech redesigned the control system in the A36 Bonanza to install dual control yokes in place of the original central control column. Because the control cable runs and other components were changed the “new” A36 went through a full flying qualities test. The wing drop at stall was still there, but no longer acceptable.

Beech devised big wedge shaped vortex generators to mount on the leading edge just ahead of the flap-aileron junction, and the A36 also has limited elevator travel. The VGs keep the ailerons active and effective through the stall to help keep the airplane level, and the elevator travel limits prevent pilots from driving the A36 to a seriously high angle of attack. In fact at higher weights or forward CG the A36 may not even stall in the conventional nose-down sense but enter a sink-mush.

A sink-mush or wings level stall can still lead to an accident, but as the Bonanza landing stall accident record shows, the results are much more survivable than the snap roll and sharp nose down pitch of some other designs.

The problem is that improved stall behavior and flying qualities can do little to resolve the takeoff/departure stall accident. The reason is that on takeoff pilots stall because they have no chance for continued flight. The airplane isn’t climbing over the terrain, trees or some other obstruction ahead and the pilot’s choice is to pull back and hope for enough climb, or fly full speed into the “wall.”

The takeoff/departure stall accident can’t be prevented by more training or improved airplane stall characteristics. The accident happens because the pilot decided the airplane can complete the takeoff when it really lacks the performance to do so. High and hot conditions, wind, contaminated runway surface and other factors all contribute, but they are not causes. Only the pilot’s belief that the airplane can make it over the obstructions causes most takeoff stall accidents.

In the certified world we have seen nice progress in taming the traffic pattern maneuvering and landing stall but almost none in resolving the departure stall accident. If more training is to help it won’t be in the cockpit. It must be a course that somehow convinces pilots that physics, not flying skill, determine takeoff performance and required runway and clearway length. When a pilot leaves no margin for his takeoff no amount of pilot training or experience can get more climb performance than the airplane is able to give.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 12 Comments

A Very Real Flying Medical Issue

During his forum talk at Oshkosh NTSB Board Member Dr. Earl Weener said that he had formed no specific position on possible changes in third class medical certification policy. The reason, he said, is because the NTSB has never conducted a study on the effectiveness of the medical certification procedures.

Dr. Weener did note that sudden incapacitation of a pilot in flight is quite rare. But something the Board is seeing more and more frequently during investigations of fatal accidents is the presence of over-the-counter medications in a pilot’s remains.

As we all know, many frequently used medications carry warnings that they can cause drowsiness, or interfere with the ability to concentrate. The warning usually advises against driving or operating machinery while taking the medication.

This type of warning is so prevalent that most of us don’t pay any attention. Just about every treatment for colds, or sneezes, or allergies, or even aches and pains carries a similar warning. I know I sure don’t lock away the car keys and stay home after swallowing a pill in the hopes of stopping a runny nose or other symptoms of a cold. I have often flown trips after taking medicine carrying such warnings.

What is frustrating investigators is that they can’t know for sure how the presence of totally legal and common medications in a pilot’s body contribute to the cause of an accident. The FAA restricts or permits specific prescription medications but as far as I know doesn’t take the same stance on over-the-counter medicines. How a particular non-prescription medicine will affect our flying is left up to us.

What age is teaching me is that behavior that was not an issue for my flying 30 years ago might be a very important factor now. For example, years ago I would fly for hours at the legal limits of altitude where supplemental oxygen is required and think nothing of it. I stretched the 30 minutes allowed above 12,500 feet without oxygen more than once and wondered what’s the big deal. I didn’t feel or perform any differently.

But now that I have crossed the threshold into official senior status I begin to notice the lack of air at 10,000 feet. And when occasional traffic or terrain forces me up to 12,000 feet I know it’s an altitude that I can’t tolerate for long.

I know that it must be the same for everyday over-the-counter medications. I ignored the warnings and kept on flying for years. But can I still do that? Will the same medicines have a different affect than decades ago? I don’t know.

The point that Dr. Weener and I are trying to make is that we are demanding the right to assess our physical fitness to fly without a third class medical system. In reality we already do that before every flight. And not all of us are making the safe decisions. Too many pilots are ignoring warnings on medications and are ending up dead in a crash. Did the side effects of the non-prescription medicine contribute to the cause of the accident?

Nobody has the answer yet. But if we continue to ignore the most basic fitness to fly alerts and takeoff after downing a drug that warns against driving and operating machinery we are undermining our claim that we safely manage and enforce our own medical standards. Of course, a third class medical certificate in no way changes the way we use over-the-counter medicines. But ignoring warnings on drugs erodes our claim that we already manage our personal medical fitness to fly. Pilots keep ending up dead with drugs that warn against driving–much less flying–in their systems, and that doesn’t sound responsible to me, and certainly not to the non-flying public.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 46 Comments

What To Do While Waiting for Third Class Medical Reform

We were all disappointed that FAA administrator Michael Huerta couldn’t tell us what is in the notice of proposed rule making (NPRM) that he signed off on before coming to Oshkosh. The actual contents of the NPRM must remain secret until it is reviewed by FAA parent Department of Transportation, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) considers financial implications of the rule for both pilots and the government.

There is lots of speculation about what the NPRM proposes, but the people who know for sure aren’t talking. Administrator Huerta says we won’t be surprised by the NPRM, but that can be read in at least two different ways. Those who expect nothing but bad from the FAA won’t be surprised if they get it in the NPRM. Those of us who remain hopeful can believe we won’t be surprised because the NPRM grants fairly wide latitude for personal flying with a driver’s license as medical certificate.

I’m guessing along with everyone else on what the NPRM actually proposes, but I am willing to make a big bet there is language in there that restricts those pilots who have been denied a medical certificate of any class. That is the standard for LSA/Sport Pilot flying. If you have been denied a medical you can’t fly using your driver’s license. Since that standard has been in place for 10 years now I feel certain it will be part of the NPRM that changes third class medical policy.

It’s vital to understand that failing an FAA medical exam is not the issue. The problem is if you can’t get a special issuance medical certificate after initially having your application for a certificate deferred.

Pilots who have gone through the process of applying for and receiving a special issuance medical certificate can fly to the Sport Pilot rule with a valid driver’s license even after the special issuance medical expires. Because that pilot persevered and completed the special issuance process they have not been denied a medical and are eligible to fly with the driver’s license.

If an AME defers your application for a medical certificate and you don’t apply for special issuance the FAA views you as being medically unfit to fly. Because both the FAA and you “know” you are unfit the driver’s license can’t apply.

So, if you have a medical certificate now, or have had one in the past that has expired, I expect you will be good to go with a driver’s license under the NPRM. If you have had a special issuance medical, even one expired, I expect you will be OK under the NPRM.

But if you have a condition that could lead to a denial of a medical you should be prepared to go through the special issuance process, or stay away from the AME. If you apply for a medical and are denied during the period while we wait for whatever new rule actually becomes law I really don’t think you will qualify to fly with a driver’s license.

I don’t want to screw up anybody’s airplane buying or selling plans but you may want to wait on closing a deal until the NPRM is published. Nobody outside the government knows for sure what airplane restrictions will be placed on pilots flying with a driver’s license or other new medical standard the NPRM may contain.

The new rule will almost certainly apply only to airplanes under a maximum weight. My hope is that weight limit is 6,000 pounds, which seems logical because that is where certification standards change for airplanes in the “small” category. But the weight limit could be lower.

The FAA also may apply the new medical standards only to airplanes under a certain maximum horsepower, or not allow retractable landing gear, or set some maximum altitude or airspeed. We just don’t know. You would hate to buy an airplane now that just nudges over some limit that is in the NPRM.

I fully expect the NPRM to restrict the number of passengers a pilot flying under the new standard can carry. I don’t know what that passenger limit will be, but I would be shocked if it allows more than three passengers for a total of four onboard, and wouldn’t be surprised if the NPRM allows only one passenger no matter how many seats are in the airplane.

There is no way to predict how long it will take DOT and OMB to clear the NPRM for publication, but until that happens, I’d wait on airplane purchase and make sure if you visit an AME you can pass the exam, or are prepared to go through the special issuance medical certification process.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 34 Comments

Going Out With A Bang

It has been a terrific Oshkosh. I know. The copy editors will want to change it to Oshkosh AirVenture. Many of us would add “convention” to the name. But Oshkosh covers all of the bases in my pilot brain.

We won’t know attendance figures for a few days when counting of wrist band sales, parking and a bunch of other stats can be totaled.

But I do know that the airport was closed to arrivals more than once because aircraft parking had become saturated. I don’ t think that has happened since 2007 the last year before the global economic slump began.

There was the flood year of 2010 when a foot of rain or more fell  just before convention turning airplane parking and camping areas into swamps. But that was a once in a lifetime event–we all hope.

The weather has been fantastic, even with a few afternoon showers. Temperatures remained comfortable, conditions were almost entirely VFR, and for whatever reason even the bugs were less of a hassle than they typically are.

People who come here to display and sell their airplanes, engines, propellers and everything else it takes to fly, try to measure the effectiveness of their sales efforts. Every exhibitor I spoke with had more qualified people visit their display, and the people who make direct sales were all up compared to past years.

I can’t say every exhibitor was happy, but I can say that everyone I spoke with had a good Oshkosh. That means flying is at least starting to return to economic health and vitality. Positive signs are everywhere.

And there is something that is impossible to measure–the mood of people here at Oshkosh. For whatever reason–probably a whole lot of reasons–everyone I spoke with is feeling better about the event.

Certainly good weather makes us all less cranky, but it’s more than that. It’s really a feeling  that we see some positive trends in personal flying.

Yes, fuel is still expensive, and so are airplanes. And there are lots of regulations to deal with no matter what you fly, build or maintain.

But there is every reason to hope we will see welcome changes in Third Class medical policy. We know a proposed rule has been written by the FAA and is now being reviewed by other departments within the government as required before publication.

Not even FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who spent a couple days here in Oshkosh, can leak the contents of the proposed new medical rules. But the administrator did tell everyone repeatedly that we will not be “surprised” by what is in the proposed rule change.

One could interpret the administrator’s choice of  the word “surprise” as the way to describe the impact of the new rule could be either positive or negative. I choose to believe it will be a good surprise, that the new rule will grant the most important relief we have been asking for.

But I have to say the most inspired, even outrageous idea I’ve heard here at Oshkosh this year came from a group of chapter members I won’t name.

They left me a note saying that a long time and much loved chapter member had passed on within the past year. A final request was for the chapter to dispose of the ashes “anywhere” that seemed right to celebrate a life in aviation.

These chapter members thought of the obvious such as spreading the ashes from an airplane in flight, or perhaps burying them somewhere on the Oshkosh grounds.

But after watching the Wednesday night air show and the climactic fireworks they hit upon a spectacular idea. Why not attach their friend’s ashes to one of the huge colorful shells that explode in a blaze of sparkling light over Wittman Field? What a way to celebrate a lifelong love of flying.

I have no idea if such a thing could ever be possible given all of the restrictions we live with, but what an idea.

I am not quite ready to sign up for the big bang yet, but I have to say, it would be one heck of way to impress your friends and leave one final story to be told for years to come.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 1 Comment

Why Is Boeing Here at Oshkosh?

More than a few people have been surprised to see Boeing become a major sponsor and presence at Oshkosh.

The main aircraft display ramp is now named Boeing Plaza.

What’s going on, they have asked me. Isn’t Oshkosh about personal and recreational aviation?

The answer is yes, Oshkosh is about personal and private flying. But it’s really about everything that flies.

What Boeing, Rockwell Collins, Honeywell, Embraer, Pratt & Whitney, GE and dozens of other major aerospace companies have done is puncture the myth that any segment of aviation can operate in isolation.

There is even a real rocket company, ATK, here talking about a mission to Mars.

Of course the homebuilt airplanes, antiques, ultralights, warbirds and standard category GA airplanes are all still here. The aerospace guys haven’t taken over. But they have joined in.

A major reason for Boeing and the other industry giants to pay attention to Oshkosh and the hundreds of thousands of people who come here is to find the next generation of pilots, technicians, engineers and all of the skilled people the industry needs going forward.

Boeing announced results of a study showing the world’s airlines will need 533,000 new airline pilots and 584,000 new maintenance technicians over the next 20 years.

Nearly half of those jobs will be in the rapidly expanding Asia/Pacific region. But in North America jobs will open up for 88,000 new airline pilots.

Boeing and its Jeppesen charting and training division have formed a new program to screen and train future airline pilots from scratch. Boeing and Jeppesen have a global reach, but even they can’t train enough pilots for future demand. It’s an industry challenge that everyone needs to pull together to solve.

The presence of the industry giants in Oshkosh is a long term investment in today’s young people who are the future of aerospace. Interesting kids in the sciences and math aerospace needs is essential, and showing them what a career in aviation can be is the best way to accomplish that goal.

Another reason for the big companies to be at Oshkosh is that the grassroots have long been the source of people to fly, build and maintain airplanes of all sizes and types. The military once was a reliable source for well trained pilots and technicians but those days are gone. People interested in airplanes must now be the source for future skilled workers in aviation.

There is also what marketers call the “influencer” story at work. An influencer is somebody who won’t necessarily buy a Boeing, or select Rockwell Collins avionics, or sign off on a new military contract, but who is in a position to influence that decision.

The challenge is that nobody can be sure who the influencers are. And we certainly can’t know which of the young people here at Oshkosh will succeed in their careers to become very important influencers.

At Oshkosh you can’t be sure who that person walking along in casual clothes looking like the rest of the crowd really is. But we can be sure that within the hundreds of thousands who visit there are people who can make decisions of great importance in aerospace. And we can also be sure that many people here will be able to influence the decisions that are made.

On top of all of that Boeing reaches from the basic personal airplane all the way to the Dreamliner. For just $49 a year Jeppesen, a Boeing company, will sell you an annual subscription for your iPad or other tablet computer that contains every chart and all information for VFR flight in the U.S.

The price of a 787 Dreamliner? Well, that’s a little more. But Oshkosh and the people who come here have an interest, and impact, on that decision, too.

We who fly, build, repair and love airplanes really are part of one big family and Oshkosh is the family reunion.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 11 Comments

From Wacos to Glass Cockpits

It was one of those “where did all the years go” moments when Garmin reminded us here at Oshkosh that the company is now 25 years old.

How did that happen? Garmin serves as a yardstick for the real revolution in aviation, the electronic advances that really have changed flying forever.

Garmin was founded by people from the old King Radio who correctly predicted the impact of GPS on aviation, and just about all other areas of our lives. And the GPS revolution is only 25 years old.

Back then GPS–called Navstar–was a military weapons guidance system. The FAA decreed that civilian pilots could never use it for navigation, and the Air Force said it would shut down access to the system anytime it thought there was a threat, and do it without warning.

The FAA and military continued to resist allowing civilians to use GPS, particularly the accurate channel called SA for selective availability. But Garmin and many other companies pressed on developing GPS navigators of increasing capability.

Probably the most significant turning point came when the Korean airliner was shot in 1983 after straying into Russian airspace. GPS signals were available, could have guided the pilots with precision and avoided the tragedy, but the crew had been denied access to GPS.

That was enough to cause President Reagan to direct the military to make GPS available for common civilian use. Later President Clinton ordered the military to turn off SA so everyone had access to the best GPS accuracy.

In aviation terms that happened recently. But unless I try hard to remember, flying without the precision of GPS is a really distant memory.

Development of glass cockpit displays followed a similar timeline. But when it come to TV pictures in the panel, cost was the big factor. The first civilian airplane to have TV tubes as primary instruments was the Boeing 767/757. In a couple years larger business jets had them, too. The size, but mostly the cost, made the displays impossible for personal airplanes.

But then flat glass technology came along with its lightweight screens that use little power and cost a fraction of what came before. Suddenly a glass cockpit in a personal airplane could be had for a lower cost than the complex mechanical gyros and flight directors that it replaced.

And who in aviation saw the iPad coming along about five years ago? It has taken the cockpit by storm displaying every imaginable kind of data from moving maps, to real time weather to your exact weight and balance.

How is this electronic revolution playing out in aviation? Oshkosh is the place to see.

Look inside a newly built airplane, either standard category or homebuilt, and you’ll almost certainly see two or three electronic screens that have replaced essentially all flight and engine instruments.

Look in older airplanes and you see endless combinations of flat screens, advanced navigators and legacy instruments.

And in a big majority of airplanes, both old and new, you will see portable devices to navigate, receive satellite or ADS-B weather, and show you a display of primary instruments including attitude and heading.

To make some sense of this consider that the “new” Waco has been building the beautiful YMF biplane for 30 years, several years longer than we have had GPS in the cockpit. The Waco airframe is little changed from the 1930s when it was first in production, though modern methods and materials make the “new” Waco a much more durable and lower maintenance airplane.

Look inside most new Wacos and what do you see? A glass cockpit, that’s what.

We love our aviation heritage, we admire airplanes from the golden age, but we also want the electronic capability that has been around for only a few years. As it turns out we can have both a rich history and the newest capabilities.

What a great time to be a pilot.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 9 Comments