Aerobatics Undefined

At the airport the other day, we got into a discussion of FAR 91.307, lovingly known as the “parachute” or “aerobatics” reg depending on who you talk to. The point of confusion was that an instructor had been told by another pilot a while back that doing spins was illegal since they weren’t wearing parachutes. The concerned pilot had seen 91.307 (c) and assumed that since spins exceed 30 degrees of pitch in most cases, that the reg had been busted. However, reading further to 91.307 (d) (2) it clearly states that spins and other checkride-required maneuvers are legal to fly without a parachute. In fact, there is no restriction on attitudes whatsoever provided everyone in the aircraft is a crew member. Actually, 91.307 (c) gives us a lot more latitude than we think. It states the following:

(C) Unless each occupant of the aircraft is wearing an approved parachute, no pilot of a civil aircraft carrying any person (other than a crewmember) may execute any intentional maneuver that exceeds–
(1) A bank of 60 degrees relative to the horizon; or
(2) A nose-up or nose-down attitude of 30 degrees relative to the horizon

If you and a fellow pilot go up and do a 90 degree bank wingover, you do not need parachutes. If you go up solo and pitch up to 50 degrees and do a reduced-G float over the top, that’s legal without a chute as well. If you take your non-rated friend up, you either have to provide parachutes for the both of you, or keep the angles to the 30/60 limit. Also, if you and 3 other pilots go up, the 2 pilots in the back seats do not count as crewmembers so the 30/60 limitation will also apply. Note, that 30/60 is not the boundary of aerobatic flight. The litmus test for what defines aerobatics for your aircraft is in the operating manual. If your manual states that aerobatics are not approved except spins, Chandelles, accelerated stalls and Lazy-8s, then you know that rolls are out of the question. But nowhere in the FARs does it describe aerobatic as being flight in excess of 30/60 degrees. FAR 91.305 defines aerobatic flight as:

For the purposes of this section, aerobatic flight means an intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft’s attitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight.

That’s pretty vague, probably one of the most open ended regs next to 91.119. What defines abnormal? What is abrupt? And what is normal flight? I get the feeling when this was written, it was with point to point transportation in mind. As such, the regulation is conspicuously open-ended to allow for other types of operations that involve more aggressive maneuvering. The catch is that the FAA can also randomly define what “normal” and “necessary” is in response to a complaint or to issue a violation. But there is still another catch. “Aerobatic” also counts as a category of aircraft.

Say that I’m out over farm fields at 3,000 feet AGL in a utility category airplane doing wingovers. My airspeed never even gets into the yellow arc and my G-load never goes over 2.0. An overeager observer down below assumed that I was “hot-dogging” and “barnstorming” and called the FAA to say that I was doing “flips and tailspins in a Piper Cub” (it’s always a Piper Cub to non pilots). Short of having a data recorder onboard, its my word against theirs. Lacking this hard data, its very hard to validate what you did or did not do. And knowing what maneuvers were flown is critical in order to defend yourself. After all, it is entirely possible to do “aerobatics” in normal category airplanes without imposing more than 2Gs on the airframe. Before you get angry and call me dangerous, I’ll explain.

While it would be tempting fate to do a snap roll in a normal category aircraft, you can freely apply full control deflections (well below Va and in one direction only), pitch, roll or yaw to whatever attitude you like. The danger is in building up too much speed in an extreme nose low attitude and needing to pull more G than the airframe is rated to (that’s when you hear the loud POP and then enjoy the rush of the wind as your wingless, tailless airframe plummets to earth). However, an abrupt change in attitude does not always imply a high load factor. Imagine using full aileron in a Piper Saratoga to roll into a steep turn (50 degrees) quickly. Was the maneuver abrupt? Compared to “normal flight” in the same type airplane, yes. Is the attitude abnormal? Not really? Was the acceleration abnormal? Not even close. So was it aerobatic? Ask your FSDO…seriously, find out how they define it.

The more knowledge you have about what you’re doing, the better. An untrained observer may say that they saw an airplane doing “acrobatics” and “stunts” when really you were doing Chandelles. If you can confidently state what maneuvers were performed along with some rudimentary info on entry altitudes and speeds, it may convince whoever is inquiring that you aren’t just throwing the stick around to see what happens. Unfortunately, society loves to point out when they think someone else is doing something wrong or unsafe without actually knowing what was going on in the first place. If you take the chance of actually having fun in other than straight and level flight, there’s the risk that someone with an iPhone is going post video of everything you did while commenting on how “unprofessional” and “dangerous” the pilot of that little airplane was.

Quite frankly, every time you fly, you are at the mercy of someone’s self-narrated cellphone video (even an airplane well above 1,500 feet AGL will show up on a phone camera). The only way to protect yourself legally is to make sure you understand the regulations fully. However, the only way to keep yourself alive is to make sure understand the aerodynamics fully. Use 91.307 to your advantage. Go up with an instructor and practice really unusual attitudes. Take some aerobatic lessons. Get used to the fact that airplanes operate in a three dimensional ocean of air. If your comfort zone ends at 30 degrees of bank, work your way up to 45 and 60 degrees (maybe even a little beyond). Once you experience that an airplane will not just drop out of the sky because the bank angle increased beyond 45 degrees, you will have a lot more confidence in handling it in all phases of flight.

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.