GA For The Masses

Like many others, I am acutely aware of the slow (and accelerating) death of general aviation in the United States. I won’t go into all the reasons for this as we’d end up with a 400 page article on everything from Baby Boomers to the aircraft certification process. I would like to bring to light some things that will help the public feel like general aviation is something they can be involved with. Hopefully with larger numbers of people who care about flying, our diagnosis will change to “critical but stable” rather than “who is the next of kin?”.

Don’t take these suggestions personally. If we aren’t honest with ourselves, we can’t help ourselves.

 

Stop trying to make everyone a pilot.

Guilty parties: Pilots, aviation advocacy groups.
Who can help: Pilots, aviation advocacy groups, FBOs, flight schools.

Just because a person likes football does not mean that they can or even should tryout for the Dallas Cowboys. Similarly, just because a person shows a passing interest in airplanes does not mean we should try to coerce them to become a pilot. There are people who love to photograph airplanes but hate being in the air. There are some who like being around fast machines but have no desire to spend thousands of dollars on the license (let alone currency and additional ratings). The enthusiast who enjoys paying for a sightseeing ride may not want instruction but is still helping to keep that aircraft and its operator in business. These people are valuable allies in the effort to keep general aviation a part of the fabric of America. One hundred thousand people who are passionate about aviation but aren’t rated are more effective than ten thousand pilots with similar passion. It’s all a numbers game, especially in Washington D.C..

Instead of telling people how great it is to be a pilot, we should understand that while anyone can like airplanes, taking that extra step to become a pilot for most people is Natalie Flyinga pretty significant leap. Invite those who are open to the idea for rides around the pattern. Don’t teach them anything, just let them enjoy and take in the unique perspective from 1000ft AGL. The experience should be something akin to cruising in a classic convertible on a sunny day. The ambiance would be ruined if the driver suddenly began explaining the construction method used for the valve lifters and the maximum cornering g-force.

Hangar Party

For those who show no interest in going up, let them have fun on the ground. Sponsoring regular open-house BBQs or hangar hang-out events at local airports is a great way to get people to the airport. Take care to see that non-aviators aren’t made to feel like outsiders. Consider a country club or marina; not everyone who goes to those facilities knows how golf or sail. For them, the golf and the boats are a backdrop for social interaction. If we use aircraft as a backdrop to events rather than the centerpiece, it makes the concept of being around airplanes less foreign.

 

Make the airport accessible.

Guilty parties: DHS, airport management, people afraid of their own shadows
Who can help: DHS, airport management, local municipalities, aviation advocacy groups, FBOs, flight schools

After 9/11, many airports went from being a fun place to hang out to a glorified Supermax with runways. Trying to fence off an airport for anti-terrorism purposes is to be polite, pointless and insulting. Maybe lawmakers haven’t noticed but airplanes have a peculiar habit of rising far above the security fence once they take off. A two-dimensional solution for a three-dimensional vehicle leaves a spare dimension of uselessness. Furthermore, I doubt that anyone bent on creating havoc and killing innocent people is really going to be worried about a trespassing rap for jumping a six-foot fence.

The best defense is popularity. Rather than fence off airports, turn them into even more valuable places for commerce and recreation. Recreation? At an airport? Of course! Why wait for a municipality to close an airport and turn it into a park? Make it a park right now. Find regions outside the runway protection zone and install bike/jogging trails complete with mile markers and the occasional water fountain. Create a playground in an empty corner of the field safely away from any operations but close enough for kids to see airplanes. With a steady stream of people using the airport for recreation, it becomes much more difficult for the maladjusted to execute their plot. For those convinced that trails would attract ne’er-do-wells, random placement of security/safety cameras along the trail would allow for monitoring of the perimeter, probably to a higher degree than would be possible without such a park.

The idea of an airport as a commerce center is not radical, but actually a very low risk method to bring regular people in close proximity with aviation. With proximity, uneasiness and fear begin to vanish and understanding takes its place. If there is an abandoned building or hangar, there is little reason why the airport, FAA and governing town can’t come to an agreement to let a non-aviation business operate in that location. For that matter, undeveloped space on or near the airport should be considered for retail or commercial buildings. In an ideal world, any retail space would feature windows that face the runway, aviation artwork or even ATC piped in over the stereo system. But even without those nods to aerospace, it’s a far better solution than letting airport buildings sit in disrepair and disintegrate. Not to mention, the tax revenue generated would be a welcome addition to the governing municipality’s coffers (and thus secure the airport a more stable future).

 

Reduce The Elite Status of Aviation

Guilty parties: Pilots
Who can help: Pilots, aviation advocacy groups

Since the first airplane took to the skies, non-pilots have imagined that it takes nerves of steel, lightning fast reflexes and a better handle on math than Euclid. For the majority of flying, this is simply untrue. Judgment and planning are the difficult parts. Usually that’s where mistakes are made that manifest themselves later in flight. The actual act of flying is really easy provided that the proper motor skills and coordination have been learned. I liken it to throwing a perfect spiral in football. You may be able to explain it with physics and algebra but the best way to learn is to practice under the tutelage of someone experienced. After a while it becomes second nature.

The image that the public has of VFR general aviation flying is wrong on many counts. One thing that remains true however, is that flying is unavoidably expensive and that cannot be changed (at least in the current economic situation). We must acknowledge that barrier and not pretend that flying is an affordable activity for everyone. But in terms of operation, a person by no means has to be a steely eyed missile man in order to fly a Piper Cherokee. We won’t be able to impress people anymore about how hard it is to wrestle the controls on a 5 knot crosswind landing, but there will be many more people who will realize that they have the ability to become a pilot too.

 

Safety. Enough Already.

Guilty parties: All of aviation
Who can help: All of aviation

Aviation has a hazardous streak. There are a lot of things that can go wrong very quickly. Even with backups and training, accidents will happen. That being said, aviation as a culture is so safety obsessive that it frightens people away. Right now I’m looking at an general aviation magazine and a motorcycle magazine that are both sitting in my room. Guess which magazine has more articles on safety despite having a lower number of articles total?

Motorcycle riding has very real hazards associated with it, just like general aviation flying. Yet when you read their periodicals, you don’t see issue aftebike-vs-planer issue featuring discussions about accidents and close calls. They focus on the fun aspects of the hobby while still encouraging responsible riding. Justifying our accident discussions as wanting others to learn from our mistakes is noble but selfish. If we think that pilots are the only ones who look at these magazines, we’re wrong. Many a spouse has seen one too many articles on accident rates and one too many features with the title “There I Was On A Dark And Stormy Night With An Engine On Fire” and decided that their mate was not going to engage in the apparently deadly act of flying small planes. Let’s do our best not to scare off people who want to fly or give fodder to the misinformed who think that “little airplanes are always crashing”. This is not to gloss over the risks involved, but to moderate the rate at which they are exposed to them.

 

 

 
These observations are based on spending time around regular people, pilots, then finding the average between the two. Thinking from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about general aviation, a lot of things about flying can be intimidating. Great strides have been made in making airports more accessible to people other than pilots and there are many cases of airports and cities working together rather than against each other. This is proof that reaching out is more effective than pulling back.

There are a lot of misconceptions about flying and many of them are self-inflicted due to our relative isolation from the general public. We need more people to support general aviation but they won’t show up until they feel welcome. Giant billboards and ad campaigns won’t change anything. Conversely, slightly altering our actions makes every pilot in America an ambassador and every airport a welcome center.

Glass Cockpit Blues

The Square Elephant In The Cockpit

Original Date: June 3, 2009

I was observing on an instrument proficiency check in a Cessna 205 and noticed some things that really did stand out. The pilot undergoing the check was highly competent and ran very thorough checklists for all phases of flight. His VOR and ILS approaches were smooth and safe with limited deflection shown on the CDI that he corrected quickly. However the one instrument in the cockpit that caused the most trouble was the GPS. The instructor asked to see a GPS approach in Orange County. The PIC started pushing buttons to enter approach mode on the receiver. And the GPS promptly decided to ignore his request and do something else, like try to enter an approach for a VOR in the area (which to its credit, it gave a message saying “This is not an airport.”).

So the PIC said lets try a different airport, like Lincoln Park. The instructor said okay, enter the approach and fly the procedure. Again the same flurry of typing and head scratching ensued. By now the instructor is fiddling with the unit and flipping through operation checklists to see if there were any shortcuts to getting it to switch modes. After about 5 minutes he proclaims victory over the beast in the black box and then asks the PIC to enter the approach. The PIC tried several times but each time hit a key that ruined the string of info just entered. That or the wrong option was selected, giving us a flight plan to Aviano. All the while, I’m scanning for traffic and telling the potential student in the back seat next to me that flying is actually fairly easy, but operating the avionics is the thing that makes aces feel like aceholes.

We headed south back to Central Jersey Regional and by this time the PIC had figured out a way to get the GPS to accept the approach mode and left the flight plan mode alone for good. He flew a perfect GPS approach to runway 7, broke off and made a ridiculously soft landing. One of those landings where you have to remind the wheels that they’re supposed to start turning because we are in fact on the ground. After the flight, I talked to the potential student about the joys of general aviation, while the instructor spoke to the PIC about the flight. It was painfully clear that while GPS is a great tool (the map mode would have kept us from guessing where NYC’s class B began in case we couldn’t see ground references, but in that case you should be IFR anyway so it’s a moot point) and it can help you fly more efficiently.

However, if you are not completely comfortable using all modes of the GPS, you’re only getting a fraction of the benefit. Even more importantly, with your head down staring at the various modes on your receiver, you’re distracted from the primary task of flying the airplane. Granted this airplane had an autopilot and it had been used earlier, but the instructor wanted to see the PIC hand fly. The PIC got off heading and altitude far more often when messing with the unit than when he was just scanning the horizon. Granted, a person with an impeccable scan will be able to divide their attention perfectly, but the fact remains that you need to know exactly where the electrons are going before you start the engine.

What's it doing now? Direct ZELEN? I don't even know who ZELEN is!

If your GPS has home training software, use it. Don’t just hit the Direct button and stare at the map. That’s a waste of many thousands of dollars of capability. Practice going to a certain airport and then switching to an alternate. Know how the map orients itself and how to zoom in and out. If your GPS can output commands to an autopilot, do some local practice flights with it engaged in good weather. Basically using the full capability of any avionics needs to be second nature. Just as you can spin the numbers on the transponder without a second thought, so must be the operation of any nav gear.

In closing, a word to any avionics manufacturer who may be reading this (hey you never know). Please make your avionics big enough to use without having to train our fingers how to lock onto the right button while bouncing around in turbulence. Yes, panel space is always an issue but most owners would welcome a large knob that does the same thing in all pages (i.e. scan, change letters, change mode, etc), or large buttons that are spaced so that the bouncing finger doesn’t hit the wrong one. Yes, the “spider crawl” method does work but it freaks out passengers. Other than that one issue, I love the color maps and built in nav/coms. Anything to make the average Piper more like an A320….except for the J-3 Cub.
Let’s leave that one simple.

 

Virtual VFR and Pilot Safety

Don’t Worry, There Won’t Be Any J-3s On An ILS To Minimums

 Original date: August 2, 2011

"I'm sorry sir, these flat panel displays are for airliners only. Have fun with your morse code identifiers."

Warning: This blog is filled with aviation terminology that may be objectionable to land-locked readers.

This all started after reading Mac McClellan’s blog on head-up displays in light aircraft. I posted a response and one of my friends who happens to be an airline captain saw it and responded to my response (don’t you love the internet?). We’ve been going back and forth about the benefits of advanced technology for general aviation aircraft. Specifically, it was about synthetic vision and how it could create Virtual VFR regardless of weather conditions. His stance is that GA pilots don’t need super advanced instruments and information systems because it will make pilots fly into conditions they shouldn’t be in. My stance is that it will make those who take the time to learn how to use it much safer.

The sticking point in any field is that new technology that makes things easier is often seen as a crutch by those who did without for the majority of their lives. When GPS began showing up in aircraft, people said “What will you do if it all fails?” I would then point to their stack of navcoms, adf and loran receivers and ask them the same question. Stuff fails no matter how high tech or low tech it is. Dealing with failures is the burden of the pilot. The mean time between failures with modern electronics far surpasses any analog, transistor or vacuum tube based system that bore the generic label “computerized” in previous decades. Automatically that is a huge benefit not just for safety but for life cycle operating costs.

The other problem brought up during the initial GPS revolution was that people would forget how to navigate or look for other aircraft. That is a problem, not so much of the GPS but of people not knowing how to divide attention, especially in busy airspace. I remember several times with my instructor when we’d spot an airplane (or worse, get bounced from behind) I’d say “Did he even see us?”. To which Marty would always have a witty comeback like “Why don’t you get out and ask him. Think it’ll make a difference?”. I have no idea why the overtakers didn’t see us but a distraction is a distraction. I don’t care if its GPS, an ADF or some poor soul with headphones on listening for “dah-dit dah-dit” on the four course.

Flying in a general aviation aircraft, regardless of what we tell passengers is a more risky activity than driving on average. However the risks can be adjusted based on a pilot’s skill, comfort level and aircraft capability. Maybe a particular pilot doesn’t like flying in clouds, flies only for pleasure and operates an aircraft equipped with VFR only steam gauges. However this pilot wants to upgrade to a 3 tube EFIS system combined with a HUD. Should we deny them advanced navigation and weather information based on the assumption that he is going to suddenly start flying between level 5 thunderstorms? Should information-dense systems be the sole domain of the turbine fleet and business jets? If the light airplane pilot wants to fly a 300nm trip, is it fair to make them use less capable avionics, ostensibly to keep them out of trouble?  

There's a lot of information, but how easy is it to interpret under stress?"

Being able to navigate a couple hundred miles through a high-pressure system without super-duper graphics and satellite weather should not be too difficult for any pilot. A basic GPS or (gasp) a stack of VOR receivers can get you just about anywhere in the United States. But the cushion of safety for those who choose to learn everything that their super-duper system can do for them is undeniable. The objective for VFR pilots is to use extra information to stay away from weather (terrain shouldn’t be a problem since if they’re VFR they should be able to see it). To say they don’t need it because they’ll start flying into frontal systems is like saying that airline pilots shouldn’t have terrain avoidance systems because they’ll see where the ground is and fly into it.

IFR flight on the other hand is a more difficult situation because there are so many variables in the types of aircraft, the types of missions, and the weather conditions at any given place or time. There may be the person in the Cirrus who is cruising at 11,000 feet on top of a cloud layer and wants to know the exact position of the hills hidden beneath those clouds. Sure he can use an IFR chart and know that by staying above the MEA he’ll be fine but let’s use the favorite example of instructors: What if the engine quit? Synthetic vision cannot dead stick an airplane onto an open farmer’s field automatically, but it does give the pilot far more information in an emergency situation with regards to wind direction, terrain location, obstructions, etc.

Take a single-pilot King Air on an ILS on a scuzzy day. The pilot has approach charts that show what the decision height is, how far from the touchdown zone that will be, what the missed approach procedure is, etc. And since the pilot is IFR rated and trains in a simulator at least once a year, it should be no big deal. However, if there is a distraction, or a problem with the aircraft, a small mistake could be made. To the delight of lawyers everywhere, I will be completely honest: pilots do make mistakes (if you don’t believe me, ask the NTSB). The majority of accidents are not one massive brain-fart but a series of smaller errors that compounded until the snowball became an avalanche. By providing easy to interpret data, the pilot’s mind is freed to deal with any other issues that arise during times when the mind is approaching task-saturation. So now while dealing with a generator problem, a sick passenger, or just an unfamiliar approach, the pilot is able to see the image of where the runway should be and cross-reference that with the standard charts and data. This removes all doubt as to the aircraft’s location and where it will be in the next 15 to 30 seconds. Breaking the links in the accident chain should be reason enough for encouraging use of such equipment.

Information-rich technology is not for every style of flying. I admit, it would be odd to fly a Stearman with a HUD. And a Cessna 152 that is only used for $200 dollar hamburger runs (inflation hurts, doesn’t it) would not need an extensive weather suite and electronic IFR charts loaded into the system. Am I in favor of putting EFIS and HUDs in everything from 

Open cockpit EFIS

light sport to piston twins? Honestly it doesn’t matter what I think. If the pilot/operator feels that the technology will be a benefit to their type of flying, then full support should be offered for getting that equipment into their cockpits. I was in Woody Saland’s hangar a while back and was intrigued by the fact that his AirCam had synthetic vision EFIS, EICAS and an autopilot. Why would anyone want so much technology in an open cockpit airplane? Then it hit me: To make the task of converting numbers, radials and performance figures into an instantly interpretable view of what your aircraft is doing. With so much of your mental capacity relieved of that repetitive task, you can actually enjoy the act of flying.