Oshkosh Arrival Quiz

Here are a few key questions about arrival procedures at Oshkosh for our annual fly-in and convention. You should know this stuff cold if you are flying in for the big show.

What time does Oshkosh Wittman Field close each day from Friday, July 25 until Monday, August 4?

The airport is closed to arrivals from 8 p.m. local time (CDT) and all airplanes must be shutdown and parked by that time. The Notam says that engine operation or taxiing is prohibited from 8 p.m. until 6 the next morning when the airport opens again. The airport also closes each afternoon during the convention for the air show and no engine operation or taxiing are permitted during those periods. I’ve just heard from the people who write the law on these things and you can depart after 6 a.m., but can’t land until 7 a.m. So everyone planning a really, really early arrival, sleep in, but if you want to get out really early the hour between 6 and 7 a.m. is all yours for departure.

What is the first point on the Fisk VFR arrival procedure?

The entry point for the Fisk arrival is the town of Ripon 10 miles to the southwest of Fisk.

How do I find Fisk in my GPS navigation database?

Most aviation GPS navigators have the location of Fisk stored in memory, but you need to add an “e” and look for FISKE. Under the navigation fix naming convention points that are not airports or VORs or NDBs have five letters. Ripon doesn’t have this issue because it, obviously, has exactly five letters in its name and is in most databases.

What are the two indicated airspeeds to maintain on the Fisk arrival?

Airplanes that can safely maintain 90 knots (104 mph) should fly that airspeed at 1,800 feet msl from Ripon inbound. Airplanes that cannot safely maintain 90 knots should fly an indicated airspeed of 135 knots at 2,300 feet.

When should you begin to monitor Fisk approach controllers?

At least 15 miles before reaching the Ripon fix. Fisk controllers–actually controllers on the ground at Fisk looking up, not using radar–are on frequency 120.7.

If holding is in progress before Ripon which lake should you circle and in what direction?

If traffic congestion or delays requires holding before reaching Ripon you must circle Green Lake which is southwest of Ripon. All turns should be to the left. If traffic plugs up for airplanes already past Ripon the controllers at Fisk may put you into a left hand circle around the smaller Rush Lake that is southwest of Fisk. Holding procedures will be announced by Fisk controllers on 120.7.

When will you know your landing runway assignment?

As you listen up to Fisk controllers on 120.7 expect to be called by airplane type and color, not N-number. Don’t call controllers. Wait for them to call you. In the vicinity of Pickett, a tiny spot on the map about 4 miles southwest of Fisk, controllers will begin calling airplanes and assigning a landing runway. You won’t get a runway assignment until past Pickett. When the controllers call your type and color rock your wings vigorously to acknowledge.

When do you change from Fisk control frequency to tower?

Don’t change frequencies until the Fisk controllers tell you to. There are different tower frequencies for the east-west and north-south runways so listen up. Don’t call the tower after you change frequencies. They will call you using type and color instead of N-number.

Can you S-turn to maintain the required one-half mile in trail separation?

No. If you can’t maintain at least one-half mile in trail you must break out of the line and return to Ripon to start again.

Which two possible routes can you expect when passing Fisk?

At Fisk controllers can clear you to continue to follow the railroad northeast toward the airport, or can direct you to fly almost straight east following Highway 44, or as it says on other pages of the Notam, Fisk avenue. Following the railroad is the most common route and that leads you into a right downwind for Runway 27. The railroad route can also be used to land south on Runway 18L/R. If you are flying the railroad route to Runway 18 do not descend below 1,500 feet until flying over Runway 9/27. Remember, pilots landing on different runways are listening on different tower frequencies.

My charts don’t show a Runway 18L/36R at Oshkosh?

During the fly-in the Runway 18/36 parallel taxiway to the east is temporarily marked and used as a runway during the convention.

Which wind direction creates the biggest hassle?

An east wind blows no good at Oshkosh. When Runway 9 must be used the Fisk arrival flow following the railroad tracks is nearly a straight in approach so there is no downwind or base leg available to space out landing traffic.

When should I call ground control?

The answer for VFR pilots is you don’t need to call ground control at Oshkosh. As soon as speed permits after landing turn off the runway and follow EAA flagmen directions to parking. When preparing for VFR departure follow flagmen directions to the active runway where you then monitor the assigned frequency for VFR departures.

Do I need a sign for my windshield after landing?

Yes. There are 10 possible parking areas on the field and you need to make a sign clearly indicating which area you wish to taxi to after landing. You can go to www.airventure.org/signs and print out the sign you want, or make your own based on the codes listed in the Notam.

What will controllers tell you even if you make a crummy landing?

Welcome to Oshkosh.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 5 Comments

Fueling Up for Oshkosh

There is, of course, weather to check, notams, and routing to plan for the flight to Oshkosh. But many pilots will spend about as much time researching fuel prices at airports along the way.

There are dozens of web outlets that post airport fuel prices, and I’m sure you have your favorite. Some sources are more accurate than others mostly because they are updated frequently. Aviation fuel prices jump around like crazy so information more than a couple days old may be wildly inaccurate.

Prices for 100LL avgas can vary two, three and even more dollars per gallon at airports not that far apart. Since avgas is a national commodity made at only a relative handful of refineries what’s the explanation for the vast variance in retail prices?

The fundamental answer is the big difference in the fuel retailers’ operating costs. The actual profit margin in fuel sales doesn’t change nearly as much as the cost of delivering the fuel into your airplane.

Consider at one extreme the airport that offers only self service fuel. The airport, if it is staffed at all, almost certainly has only one person there and only for at most eight hours a day. The operating costs that must be added to set the retail fuel price at an airport like that are small.

At the other end is a full service FBO that is fully staffed by several people for probably 16 or more hours a day. That FBO has a comfortable waiting room, pilot briefing services, food vending or more options, regularly cleaned restrooms, quickly available ground transportation and on and on. Since the only significant income left for FBOs is from fuel sales it’s easy to see how the cost of all of the staff and services must be added into the final retail price of fuel.

Neither type of fuel/FBO operation is intrinsically good or bad. It drives me crazy when I hear pilots blasting the fuel price at a big full service FBO without for a moment considering who pays the cost of the many services included in the fuel price. If you don’t want to pay for the FBO services, land at one of the thousands of airports that don’t offer those services.

But when you make your plans for Oshkosh consider what you may want to pay for along the way. For example, that airport that has rock bottom fuel prices may or may not offer any other service. If weather pins you down there in the evening you could be stuck sleeping in your airplane because there are no taxies, no nearby hotels, and no way to get to a restaurant. That may be perfectly fine with you, and is an eventuality that you have planned for. But it’s a possibility that must be considered.

The availability of basic maintenance is another factor in selecting a fuel stop. With the big drop in flying activity since the recession began six years ago many airports can’t support a maintenance shop, or even individual mechanic, on the field. Something as simple as a flat tire, dead battery or failed starter could leave you stranded for hours or more.

Another factor that can alter fuel prices dramatically from one small airport to another is the sales volume. Minimum fuel deliveries are typically 3,000 to 5,000 gallons. Fuel providers grant very short payment periods so the load of fuel in the small FBO tank must be paid for long before it is eventually all sold. Since wholesale fuel prices can change daily the cost to the FBO can be very different depending upon when the fuel was delivered. It could take months for some small FBOs to sell a load of fuel so they are stuck with a price that is out of date, which can be either good or bad depending upon the fuel cost at delivery.

FBOs also employ different pricing strategies. One FBO may set the retail price based on the wholesale cost he paid upon delivery. Another FBO may try to estimate what the price of the next delivery will be and set retail price on the cost of the “replacement” fuel. When fuel prices are moving dramatically, as is all too common, which price strategy an FBO uses can make a big difference.

But wherever you buy fuel on the way to Oshkosh be sure to arrive with lots of reserve. How much is enough? At least double the 30 minute required VFR reserve is essential, and I would feel comfortable with more like a couple of hours. Despite the well honed arrival procedures at Oshkosh the situation can change in an instant. For example, a minor mishap on the runway can cause landing delays to ripple out for a long time. A strong wind making only one runway available dramatically cuts capacity. And at some periods airplane parking has filled up in the past which causes delays and diversions.

Fuel prices will be a big concern for every pilot headed to Oshkosh, but remember the many other factors that can make your trip a pleasant or a trying one.

Click on this link to see information from FBOs that have told EAA about special Oshkosh discounts they are offering: http://www.eaa.org/en/airventure/eaa-fly-in-flying-to-oshkosh/fuel-service-and-discounts/fbo-discounts-special-offers

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What to Practice Before Flying to Oshkosh

Controllers on the orange dot. Photo courtesy of Fred Stadler

Flying into Oshkosh is different from flying we do the rest of the year. The unique procedures of the Fisk arrival have been refined over decades and work very well to get something like 10,000 airplanes into Oshkosh during the convention and the days leading up to it.

Pilots who have never made the pilgrimage wonder what they need to know and practice to be ready for the show. The most important preparation is to read the official Oshkosh Notam very closely. No, not closely, study the Notam. In fact you need to memorize the details because you won’t have much time to be reading once you are about to begin the arrival.

There are also helpful videos on the EAA website at eaa.org that show the view from the cockpit of airplanes arriving at Oshkosh. Seeing the landmarks on the video is a very important addition to simply reading about them, and looking at chart symbols in the Notam.

As for the actual flying techniques required at Oshkosh there are the basics you need to master, and then one type of landing you may have never tried before.

The basics are airspeed, heading and altitude control. If you arrive during a busy period you will be following pilots flying at an airspeed that is likely different from your typical pattern and approach. The traffic ahead may be moving faster than you normally would, or more likely slower. You need to be able to maintain spacing in trail without slowing too much to give up stall margin for your airplane, and you must be able to split your scan of the airspeed and the airplane ahead.

An often overlooked prohibition in the Notam is that S-turns are not allowed. If you can’t keep spacing on the airplane ahead you must depart the stream of traffic and re-enter the procedure. I think you can understand why. If pilots start S-turning the airplane in trail won’t know for sure where the airplane ahead is going, and at what effective airspeed.

You should also practice both wide and close traffic pattern work. If traffic is heavy the right base leg for landing Runway 27 can stretch out pretty far to the east. But if you end up being cleared to land south on Runway 18R that will always be a close in left base to final turn. You won’t know for sure which runway you will be assigned because it all depends on wind and traffic density at the moment.

But the one really unusual procedure controllers may ask you to fly is to land long, very long. At Oshkosh we use the famous colored “dots” as touchdown targets so more than one landing airplane can be on the runway at once with sufficient spacing. And the second dot on either runway is almost certainly much farther down the pavement than you have landed in normal flying.

Let’s say you are landing on Runway 27 which typically handles the most arriving traffic. First, there is a displaced threshold 531 feet down from the actual end of the pavement. Another 1,000 feet down is the big orange dot. Then 1,500 feet farther down Runway 27 is the green dot. So, if the controller tells you–often on short notice–to “put it on the green dot” you will need to fly over about 3,129 feet of runway to get to the dot. That is more runway than the total runway length many pilots use. Even at the green dot there is 3,050 feet of runway left to get stopped putting the green dot just about smack in the center of the runway.

It’s an odd visual sensation to continue flying over so much pavement the first few times you do it. We reflexively aim for the touchdown zone even on long runways like the ones at Oshkosh, so to keep it flying past that spot feels really weird.

Of the arrival incidents I’ve seen at Oshkosh over many years pilots keeping it flying to the last assigned dot stick out in my memory. Sometimes they get too slow and drop it in. I remember a Bonanza that fell so hard as the pilot tried to keep it in the air that it blew a main gear tire and collapsed the gear. Taildragger pilots can have their hands full if they don’t maintain a proper airspeed and hit harder than they expect. It’s just something we don’t normally do.

So, in addition to the essential Notam study and polished skills on airspeed control I would go to a long runway and practice landing halfway down. If it’s a controlled airport be sure to let the tower know what you plan to do because without notice they expect you to land in the normal spot.

Personally I find it easier to drag the airplane down the runway about 20 to 40 feet in the air rather than trying to estimate a more or less steady glidepath to the long spot. It takes quite a bit of power to drag the airplane along and when you pull the throttle back, you’re going to drop quickly. But each airplane can respond differently, and you need to find out what works best for you and your airplane. It’s just important to know what it looks and feels like to land really long.

Of course, after your practice the Oshkosh controllers may tell you to put it on the numbers, but that’s something you have practiced your entire flying career. But if you draw the green dot on Runway 27, or the pink dot on Runway 18R, you’ll be ready to fly over a lot of pavement before touching down.

Welcome to Oshkosh.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 14 Comments

Kit Company Default

A reader has contacted me several times worrying about the possibility that an airplane kit company may default on an order he places. He thinks I should warn people that it could happen, and should do something about the possibility.

Well, consider yourself warned. There have been a number of airplane kit makers that took deposits, or even full payment, and then folded financially before delivering complete kits.

The most notorious default was probably the BD-5 fiasco in the 1970s. The company accepted fully paid orders for hundreds, maybe even thousands, of kits to build the tiny single-seat pusher. To my knowledge nobody received a complete kit for the BD-5. The most fundamental missing component was an engine and drive system.

Other kit makers also failed financially and left builders stranded with incomplete kits, or perhaps no hardware at all. Some of those companies even reorganized and continue in a restructured form, though a bankruptcy almost always leaves order holders from the original company in the lurch.

I hope none of this is news to somebody considering ordering an airplane kit. Even the largest kit maker is still a small company, and small companies have smaller capital cushions than large ones so risk of default is always at least a little greater.

But what really bothers this fellow is the policy of requiring a significant deposit, or even complete payment, with a kit order. He believes those policies should be somehow stopped, and that EAA should take the lead in abolishing the prepayment practices.

First of all, airplane kit manufacturers are small. They don’t have the resources to buy the materials, pay staff to fabricate a kit, and then put that kit in inventory and carry the cost until an order arrives. Unsold finished goods have brought down very large companies–particularly aviation companies–and would be the death knell for a kit maker.

Secondly, an airplane kit is actually a custom made product. Even the most popular kits offer options and having choices are a huge reason somebody builds their own airplane. As with any custom made product, you pay upfront. Go order a new sofa and the maker is going to want all or most of the money before he starts to build and upholster the couch to your personal and exact specifications. Paying upon order is the only way creators of truly custom products can survive financially.

But there are steps any prospective kit builder can take to minimize the chances that his kit investment will be lost.

As they say in the financial business, past performance is no guarantee of future returns, but it is the best guidance available most of the time. If a kit company is established and has delivered a large number of kits that’s a good indication you will get your order filled as promised. Given the instant response time of the web any default or failure to deliver as promised by a kit company will be news on the day it happens. There is no place to hide for a company that is stiffing its customers.

Another layer of protection is to pay by credit card if the kit maker offers that option. Major credits cards will usually protect the cardholder if a merchant fails to deliver as promised.

Of course you may be able to take the good old FOB delivery. Go to the kit maker’s loading dock, hand over cash or an equivalent, and drive away with your kit. The larger, more established kit makers are most likely to offer the FOB option.

If you are a pioneer and want to be one of the first in line for a new design from a newly formed company your risks are highest in every respect. The company’s financial status is unproven and there is no track record of satisfied customers to confirm its performance. You could try to construct an escrow payment but that can be legally complex, will involve lawyers in order to have confidence, and will generate costs that somebody has to cover.

Default by an airplane kit maker is not a trivial issue. But it is not one that has a concrete solution. The largest kit makers will always be small businesses, and a startup company, no matter what the business, will always have considerable risk.

As with any investment the best you can do is research the kit company as thoroughly as possible and decide for yourself the level of risk. After all, when and if you finish a kit airplane a placard will say in large letters for all to see that this airplane is an experiment. The experiment is not only the flying of the finished airplane. The kit maker is a big part of the experiment, along with your building techniques and maintenance after the airplane is flying. Experimental aircraft cannot offer a guarantee of any sort and still exist, so there are no guarantees available for that very first step of making an order.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 25 Comments

The VFR Rain Trap

It’s only 36 miles from the Muskegon, Michigan airport to Grand Rapids. The terrain is flat and both airports have lots of long runways. It’s hard to think of an easier flight to make.

The METAR sequence report for Muskegon showed calm wind, visibility of 10 miles, and scattered clouds at 10,000 feet with a higher overcast. It was raining lightly.

The METAR at Grand Rapids showed scattered clouds at 11,000 feet and 10 miles visibility. It was not raining.

The terminal forecasts for both airports called for showers in the vicinity but ceiling and visibility were predicted to remain good VFR with viz no lower than 6 miles and ceiling no lower than 4,000 feet for several hours.

What pilot looking at the reports of actual weather at both airports, and the forecast for continued good weather at both ends, would think that it would be a problem to make the short flight under VFR?

The Nexrad radar did show light to moderate returns over Muskegon airport, and scattered along the route to Grand Rapids. But the visibility was 10 miles or more even in the rain at Muskegon airport. There were students shooting landings in the pattern. And the Nexrad returns didn’t look any different along the route than over the airport.

I pulled my airplane out of the hangar in the light rain and called for an IFR clearance. I expected to be in visual conditions for the whole flight at the cleared altitude of 3,000 feet.

As I climbed through about 1,500 feet just a few miles east of Muskegon airport I flew into a cloud. During breaks in the clouds I could see a lower cloud/fog layer below me. The Nexrad picture hadn’t changed since takeoff. It showed just level one green with some areas of level two yellow to the south of my route. But I was on solid instruments just 1,000 feet above the ground.

I remained in clouds and rain at 3,000 feet most of the way to Grand Rapids. About six miles from the airport the clouds parted, the rain stopped and Grand Rapids had the good VFR conditions reported and forecast.

What happened? How can two airports so close together both reporting and forecasting good VFR have unexpected IFR conditions in between?

The most likely reason is that the rain cooled the air enough to bring the dew point and air temp together forming clouds. Rain cooled clouds are not uncommon, but can be difficult to forecast.

Terminal forecasts (TAFs) attempt to predict the weather only in the immediate airport area, a radius of about five miles. The TAFs were getting the forecast mostly right over both airports, but did not apply to the short distance in between.

The area forecast covers huge swaths of territory and deals in generalities, including predictions of VFR or IFR conditions. The area forecast for Michigan covers big chunks of the state, such as “SW QTR” for southwestern quarter. My route was in that quarter of the state, but the area forecast did not predict conditions going below marginal VFR.

This short flight is the perfect example of why only the windshield is a reliable weather observation for VFR flying. I only had two data points for weather, one on each end of the trip. Forecasters only had the same data points, too. What conditions actually were along the route at takeoff were a mystery.

Since it was already raining at Muskegon but the weather was still good VFR why did the rain create different conditions between the two airports? If the rain was going to create clouds, why didn’t that happen at Muskegon?

The answer is probably the effect of Lake Michigan. The water is still very cold and its presence can actually create its own weather, just as any coast can be impacted by air flowing over water. For reasons that are almost impossible to forecast the “sea breeze” clouds can form just off shore, or just a few miles on shore. On this day they formed on shore east of the weather observation at Muskegon airport.

The reminder for me on this flight is that if the dew point is high, and fairly close to the air temp, and there is rain showing on the radar, you have to expect clouds and IFR conditions to form unexpectedly no matter what the weather observations may be.

The great frustration is that most of the time light rain showing on Nexrad does not significantly change the ceiling and visibility. You can fly for miles and miles in good VFR with the Nexrad showing lots of green and even yellow returns. But then on a few days the same amount of rain can create clouds that are a very real risk for VFR flying.

If you’re flying VFR and see light rain returns show up on Nexrad you don’t need to panic. But you sure need to look ahead for any signs of low clouds forming, and be ready for an instant diversion to a nearby airport.

 

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

The Flying Car May Be a Helicopter

It’s looking to me like the dream of a personal short range land and takeoff almost anywhere aircraft is actually going to be a helicopter.  Not exactly the flying car of science fiction but a machine that can hop over the ground traffic and obstacles that we all want to avoid.

The reason I believe a helicopter can now be the personal aircraft for the many is MEMs. The same technology that makes it possible for copter drones to essentially fly themselves also makes the personal helicopter practical.

Helicopters are the hardest aircraft to master, particularly in the hover. And it is hovering that makes a helicopter useful and valuable.

I have never tried to ride a unicycle, but I imagine it would be much like hovering a helicopter. Every control input during a hover, or the slightest puff of wind, upsets the equilibrium of forces necessary to hover. Any movement of the control cyclic requires a balancing input from the collective lever and anti-torque pedals. And the power must also be adjusted.

Learning to hover was the hardest thing I have done in an aircraft. For me, and most, the key is to not think about the control requirements. They must become instinctive. If you take time to think about what is happening and which control to move to correct the situation, it’s too late.

But hovering a helicopter is nearly child’s play for MEMs. And that’s why the drone copters can zoom around under excellent control even though the operator is probably not experienced at all in controlling a helicopter.

MEMs are micro electronic mechanical devices that can sense motion and can be linked together to measure attitude and velocity. MEMs are what make the non-moving electronic gyros that are key to flat glass avionics systems possible.

In a copter application MEMs detect movement in all directions and work with a fast computer chip to develop a correction command to stabilize the craft. Thanks to MEMs a copter can automatically maintain a hover until the pilot asks it to move in one direction or another, or up or down.

Helicopters have had stability augmentation systems (SAS) that aid the human pilot for decades. Many large helicopters are almost unflyable with the SAS turned off. But SAS has been complicated and very expensive. Thanks to the very low cost of MEMs small multi-rotor copters can fly themselves in terms of knowing what control inputs are necessary to move in the desired direction, or to hover.

As far as I know it hasn’t been done yet, but it’s easy to see how a copter drone could be scaled up to carry one or two people over relatively short distances. A battery may hold enough power for a typical hop over a congested urban area. The pilot would need no more training or skill than a car driver.

A personal multi-rotor copter won’t be cheap, but compared to conventional helicopters the costs could be attractive to many. The multi-rotor technology that really only works with automatic control fits in a smaller ground footprint then a conventional single main rotor design so there would be more options to “park” it at the destination.

Several European groups are already studying the personal “automated” copter and the larger challenges appear to be crowding in the sky, collision avoidance, parking room, and maybe most difficult of all, public opposition to a bunch of small copters zooming over their homes and patios.

The flying car is so illusive because it must both fly and drive. An automated personal copter only needs to fly because it can land within walking distance of the destination–the parking lot. And thanks to MEMs that make drones possible, almost anybody could fly an automated copter.

Everybody who has predicted development of the flying car has been wrong so far. What are my chances on the personal automated copter becoming a reality? I think, thanks to electronics developments which have been so hard to predict and have turned out to be so much more capable than we have imagined, my odds could be as good as even money.

 

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 23 Comments

Do We Still Need Telephone Weather Briefings?

The FAA is looking, as always, for ways to trim spending. Rumor has it that the feds may not extend funding for the two DUAT online weather and flight planning services after the end of the government’s fiscal year this September. I think that would be a huge mistake.

The two online briefing services for pilots–DUAT and DUATS–were rolled out early in the internet era. They were among the first easily available sources for complete weather data, notams, TFRs and flight plan filing. Initially the service was text only, but eventually graphics were added. All you needed to use the service is a current medical certificate.

Since the DUAT services were established a whole host of online and mobile device apps have been invented. I can’t possibly keep track of how many weather and flight planning apps and services there are, and what they can all do, and the number keeps growing. In many respects the apps are easier to use and more graphically driven then the DUAT services.

What most pilots don’t know is that nearly all of the new flight planning apps and services actually use one of the DUATs to get their information and file flight plans. The FAA has been cautious about allowing online services to connect directly to the ATC computer system to input flight plans. It’s easy to see why. Can you imagine what a hacker, or even a well meaning bumbler, could do to the ATC system if they were allowed to feed corrupted or malware files directly into the ATC Center computers? It would be a disaster for air travel.

So DUATs, and just a handful of other fully vetted operations, are permitted direct access to the FAA system. Though you may no longer use one of the DUAT providers, you are very likely to be using their FAA connections when you use one of the very capable apps that have become so popular.

From what I can tell the entire DUAT budget is under $10 million. And it’s a pay per contact service so the FAA pays only when pilots use it. This is chicken feed in any federal government budget, and one of the best values the FAA has.

DUAT, both directly and indirectly by linking other providers to the FAA, is doing so much for so little, but the big bucks spent on weather are still going into the telephone briefing. An online weather briefing or flight plan filing costs pennies, but a phone briefing costs many dollars. The worst part is that a phone briefing, no matter how long it takes, can never deliver graphics to show the boundaries of airmets, or sigmets, or radar pictures or fronts and lows and highs, or critical TFRs. And the world’s longest phone briefing could only give a pilot a tiny fraction of the total information available, no matter how fast the pilot scribbles as the briefer reads.

Briefers are not allowed to actually interpret the weather information they give to pilots. In the old days when FSS staff were located on airports, had windows to look out, and often spent many years at the same station, they did have knowledge and experience about local conditions and could add local knowledge to the briefing. Those days are gone.

What the phone briefer can do now is sort through the huge stack of data and prioritize giving the pilot on the phone the most critical and important data more quickly. But now software can do that, too. Almost daily the weather apps and online sites get better at showing what matters most first, and presenting the information in an easy to understand and interpret format.

Some pilots still find it comforting to hear a human voice read them the weather information, and intone those “VFR not recommended” words, or express serious concern when reading an airmet or sigmet, or terminal forecast for low conditions. But most of us don’t. We want the information quickly, completely, and want to read it and see it for ourselves.

Ending phone briefings would save more than 10 times the cost of DUAT services and online briefings. Complete weather and flight planning information is available from so many outlets I think it’s time to cut the phone cord.

But what about inflight weather requests? Without briefers who would read weather, notams, TFR locations and such to a pilot in flight? That is an issue, but the solution is already being implemented through ADS-B FIS (flight information service). ADS-B sends up complete weather and flight information continuously from a national network of ground stations that is nearly complete. Portable ADS-B receivers cost well under a grand, there is no subscription fee, and FIS can show pilots radar pictures, location of TFRs and weather alerts, and other graphics on mobile electronic devices, notably the iPad.

The FSI data sent up continuously is so much better than anything an FSS person can read over the radio because you can see the information graphically. And on most systems you can see the actual location of your airplane relative to the TFR, or radar returns, or other weather hazard. No voice report can do that.

In aviation we are of necessity slow to adapt new technology. We want proven tech, not new tech because the stakes are high. But electronic information technology is now well proven, is being used daily at the highest levels of aviation, and can do so much more than any phone or radio voice briefing it’s time to move ahead. Let’s hang up the weather phone.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 43 Comments

The FAA Didn’t Do It

A reader commented on a recent blog that if the FAA required less safety equipment the price of new airplanes would be a lot lower. At first that makes some sense, but when I thought a moment, it just isn’t the case. The FAA really hasn’t added many safety requirements for light airplanes, and certainly nothing on the order of automobile safety equipment changes in the last 30 years.

The writer cited the ELT requirement as one of the FAA required cost drivers for new airplanes. But ELTs have been required for more than 40 years, and were required during the golden age of GA production in the second half of the 1970s when annual production reached nearly 18,000 airplanes. Clearly the cost of ELTs wasn’t anything that bothered new airplane customers then.

The only two specific FAA required safety equipment changes that come to my mind since the 1970s are for seats and restraints, and Mode C transponders.

In the 1970s the FAA began requiring shoulder harnesses in at least the front seats of new airplanes. An added cost for sure, but one we all welcome. And again, airplane production was booming at the time so the added cost didn’t harm sales.

The crashworthy seat rules came later in the late 1980s and 90s and applied only to newly certified airplanes, not those continuously in production. The seat and the restraint system in new design airplanes has to protect a calibrated crash dummy from spinal injury in a 21, or in some cases higher, G load impact. At first seat design was a big challenge, but engineers worked with seat foams and seat pan designs to meet the rule without a lot of complicated seat support structure. Again, some new cost, but by then airplane prices had already soared so it was not a significant addition.

The transponder requirements that evolved from the 1970s on were safety additions, but primarily aimed at the safety of airline passengers. The public simply would no longer tolerate collisions between GA airplanes and airliners and requiring transponders in all airplanes flying near airline airports was a solution. And it has worked. Mode C transponders allow the TCAS collision warning systems in airliners to function effectively, and since the requirements for transponders and TCAS there hasn’t been a midair involving an airliner in the U.S.

GA airplane owners and pilots also benefited from the transponder rules because controllers can provide effective flight following that is not possible without Mode C. Almost universal equipage of Mode C transponders also allows the traffic warning systems in thousands of GA airplanes to “see” and warn of nearby traffic. Transponders were an added cost, a big controversy, but now something we learned to live with and are not, overall, a huge factor in airplane prices.

What did add to airplane cost over the years were the changes manufacturers made to make a better airplane even though it wasn’t an FAA requirement. For example, when Cessna put its piston singles back in production it changed to entirely fuel injected engines. Carbureted engines are perfectly FAA legal, but they can lose power because of carb ice. Cessna wanted to eliminate the chance of carb ice so the Skyhawk returned with a fuel injected engine. The 182, too. An extra cost, a nice benefit, but nothing to do with the FAA.

Nearly all airplane manufacturers transitioned from vacuum pumps and spinning rotor gyros to electronic flight instruments, not because the FAA required it, but because electronics are more reliable and pilots want it. More safety potential, more cost, but not the FAA’s fault.

Consider the Beech A36 Bonanza. It has been in continuous production for more than 45 years and the last FAA “required” airframe safety change was made in 1984 when Beech redesigned the cockpit flight controls. Because the system changed from a central column with throw-over yoke to a standard dual control wheel Beech had to conduct the full range of flight tests to be sure the control mechanism change didn’t impact handling qualities.

The flight test revealed the A36 didn’t meet every FAA requirement for low speed and stall behavior in all configurations so a wedge shaped vortex generator was added to the leading edge just ahead of each aileron. The wedge solved the flying qualities issues and the A36 has flown on for the last 30 years without additional FAA required changes. But the price of an A36 has raced ahead of inflation like all other new piston airplane prices.

We can all assemble our own very long lists of why airplane prices have risen faster than other manufactured products such as automobiles or consumer electronics, but when you look closely, the FAA really doesn’t get much of the blame for changing requirements, particularly for airplanes in production.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 17 Comments

The Limits of Shared Ownership

It’s logical that flying costs can be cut through shared ownership of an airplane. A partnership, a flying club, or even renting spread the fixed costs of flying over many so each individual’s costs are reduced. The problem is that for many us flying isn’t logical.

By that I mean we fly because we love it. And you don’t need me to tell you that love is hardly logical. Have you ever heard a hit song or read a poem rhapsodizing the logic of love? Me either.

Of course we can use an airplane for efficient transportation but that’s secondary for most of us. We fly because we want to, and then we figure out where and when to fly. The $100 hamburger didn’t become legendary because most airplanes are used for efficient transportation.

The problem is it’s really hard to share something you love. Doting on, fiddling with, polishing, modifying and just plain taking pride in are the key factors in airplane ownership. Just having all the switches in the same place you left them is a big deal. Keeping charts, headsets, all the stuff that goes with flying in its spot where nobody else touches it is invaluable. In other words, that’s why we own instead of rent.

When flying has a specific purpose then the ownership question is different. For example, nearly all of us are content to rent a trainer to learn to fly. The trainer has a specific mission and it’s a temporary one to get us to our goal. We don’t often develop deep affection for a trainer, anymore than we take a rental car through the car wash, or park it way out back so others don’t ding it with their doors.

If transportation is the fundamental mission for an airplane we are also perfectly happy to share it with other crews. I don’t know of any professional pilots who intentionally abuse their employers airplane, but they don’t pat it on the nose and look over their shoulder when they walk away at the end of a flight either.

Some people who see shared airplane ownership as a way to revive private flying have pointed out to me how young people in many big cities now buy small shares in cars, or even in bicycles. They see that as evidence that shared ownership is on the rise and that it can work for airplanes.

I see just the opposite. When young people are unwilling the bear the cost and inconvenience of owning their own car it tells me they don’t enjoy driving, or any other aspect of cars. Fewer American teenagers have a driver’s license than at any time in the modern era. And those who get a license do so at a much older age. Compare that to my generation–and probably yours–when we all got our driver’s license on the first birthday that was allowed. We loved cars and driving, young people today don’t, at least not at the same level.

Don’t get me wrong. There is an important role for shared ownership and renting in private flying but it is not the same as owning your own airplane. We use other people’s airplanes to accomplish a task. We use our own airplanes to satisfy a desire that really can’t be explained to those who don’t share it.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 30 Comments

Enough Runway Available? Maybe

In the 1970s the member companies of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) developed a standard format for the pilot operating handbook (POH) for light airplanes. Before that each manufacturer provided a lot or a little performance data and the way the data was presented in the book was unique to each company.

You might think that the FAA requires comprehensive performance data for all airplanes, but that’s not true. For large airplanes that weigh more than 12,500 pounds the FAA requires extremely detailed information on runway requirements for both landing and takeoff. But for small propeller airplanes, those weighing less than 12,500 pounds for takeoff, performance data is advisory, not an FAA requirement.

The only FAA certified and approved data for a small propeller airplane are the limitations, including limiting airspeeds, maximum weight, CG limits, engine operating limits and so on. That information is in Section II of the standard POH. By FAR pilots must observe the limitations, but other data, such as runway takeoff or landing length, is advisory and not an FAA requirement.

It’s been my experience over many decades that the major airplane manufacturers have been diligent and honest in the advisory performance data included in the POH. If you carefully study the conditions that apply to the takeoff or landing situation the airplane will perform by the book. But if a condition is different than shown in the POH, such as air temperature, weight, runway slope, water on the runway, wind gusts or other factors, your experience will be different.

Even more important is the fact that the test pilots who collected the performance data flew the exact profile described in the conditions. That didn’t happen because test pilots are perfect, but because they keep repeating the test until they hit every test point perfectly.

For example, I can look in the POH and see that on a standard day, which means the temperature is 15 degrees C, the runway is at sea level, there is no wind, and the altimeter is 29.92 hg, my airplane, at max takeoff weight, can take off and clear a 50-foot high screen in 2,100 feet.

Did the test pilot wait for those conditions and then find a 2,100-foot runway with 50 foot tall trees at the end to conduct the test? Of course not. He used a very long runway. And then he repeated the test takeoff until his liftoff speed was exactly 86 knots indicated, as the book says, and the airplane had accelerated to 94 knots at 50 feet above the runway.

Since the atmospheric conditions and runway elevation were not exactly standard day during the test the results were interprolated from other tests under various conditions. In that way a relatively few actual tests can be calculated to cover a broad range of conditions to create a graph covering most circumstances.

Do I believe the test flight measurements and performance calculations are accurate? Yes, as much as possible. But would I attempt a max weight takeoff on a 2,100-foot runway with tall trees at the end? No. And neither did the test pilot.

Landing runway required data is an even a bigger concern because there is so much pilot technique involved. The POH says I can land and stop on a 2,400-foot runway at maximum weight with 50-foot trees at the runway threshold under standard day conditions. To do that the test pilot adjusted power to maintain an 800 fpm descent which is approximately a 3 degree glidepath. He maintained the target approach speed exactly. And he used maximum braking after touchdown.

What the conditions in the POH don’t say is that the test pilot barely flared for landing, if at all. He couldn’t hit nosewheel first in a successful test, but all three could touch at once. And were the trees really there and the runway that short for the test? No, of course not. The runway length noted was the result of as many test landings as it took to get all of the conditions exactly right.

My point is that POH data isn’t a lie, but it can mislead. The results reflect a perfect world that doesn’t really exist in normal flying. And the published number contains no margin. The test pilots collected the data in what is actually a laboratory setting. Which makes sense. If they had used a real 2,400 foot runway with real 50 foot tall trees on the threshold they would have used up a few prototype airplanes trying to get the test just right.

If you fly people for hire the landing runway distance in the POH can’t be more than 60 percent of the actual runway. That means when the book says I need 2,400 feet to get over those tall trees and stopped the actual minimum runway I could use would be 4,000 feet. Would I expect to land and stop on that tree-blocked 2,400 foot runway? Maybe, but not every time. Would 4,000 work? Yes.

It’s essential to understand what the POH is telling us, but equally important to add our own comfortable margins. Even the STOL pilots at competitions don’t take off and land on a sidewalk. They use a long open runway and a measuring tape to find the results, not an airplane hanging in a row a trees at the end of the runway.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 5 Comments