Pilot Selfies, apples, and oranges

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The NTSB recently release a “probable cause” report on the fatal crash of a Cessna 150 in Colorado last May. The agency determined the probable cause of the accident to be:

The pilot’s loss of control and subsequent aerodynamic stall due to spatial disorientation in night instrument meteorological conditions. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s distraction due to his cell phone use while maneuvering at low-altitude.

That last line is the first time the agency has identified cell phone use as a contributing factor to a fatal accident. They based that conclusion on footage from a GoPro camera, recorded on the penultimate flight a few minutes earlier, that showed “the pilot and various passengers…taking self-photographs with their cell phones and, during the night flight, using the camera’s flash function during the takeoff roll, initial climb, and flight in the traffic pattern.”

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Flight training: Instrument rating

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Getting my instrument rating was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. And, more importantly, it is one of my proudest achievements.

Stats

Aircraft: 1980 Mooney 231, Garmin 430W, HSI

Total flight hours before IFR training: ~100 with about 40 in type, 60 cross country

Final hours of simulated or actual IFR training: 41, almost all in the Mooney, all with an instructor

Actual IMC during training: 2 hours

Back to Basics

According to Wikipedia, cognition is the set of all mental abilities and processes related to knowledge: attention, memory, judgement, reasoning, problem solving, decision making, comprehension, production of language, etc. All of these processes are important in VFR flying, but the stakes are higher under IFR and they are off the charts in clouds (actual IMC). Consequently, you should expect IFR training to stretch the limits of your cognitive abilities and it will do so at the expense of your other abilities, such as flying the airplane.

Before you start training, practice the basics of flying to make sure they are second nature. Practice holding a heading within 10 degrees, and an altitude within 100 feet. Make a cross country flight with flight following to make sure you’re comfortable speaking with ATC, and try to absorb their vocabulary and syntax so your communications are short, precise, and informative. Communication is crucially important in IFR, so for more help, spend some time listening to a busy frequency on liveatc.net and try to imagine the airspace and the traffic inside it.

Which Instructor?

Of course, any instructor with a CFII is qualified to teach students in IFR. However, if possible, work with a seasoned instructor. The 20 year old CFI that just got their instrument teaching endorsement (the “double i”) probably doesn’t have all that much actual instrument experience. For my money, I want to learn from someone with as much actual experience as possible. I want to hear about their difficult flights and how they handled situations like thunderstorm avoidance and in-flight icing. Further, a “seasoned” instructor will better accommodate your learning style and might be able to help you overcome the challenges along the way quicker. Seek out that instructor at your flight school, and let the 20 year olds teach the VFR students.

The Tests

Honestly, I had more difficulty with the written test than the practical test. It is difficult to put into words, but I think my problem was that the written test had a lot of information that didn’t apply to the IFR flying I was doing (for instance, questions about ADF navigation). I made sure to study and take practice tests often, identifying my weak areas and not taking the written exam until I had ironed out those weaknesses. There are many self-study courses available, and I used the Sporty’s IFR course on the iPad and found it to be helpful. However, I referred to an IFR textbook (Jeppeson) when the videos and other information on the app didn’t answer my questions.

Predictably, I found myself very anxious leading up to the practical test. The oral portion of the test was straightforward, with an emphasis on understanding the details of the IFR enroute and approach charts. One other area of emphasis was in emergency procedures, and we spent a long time discussing lost communication scenarios. The actual flying was less stressful–easier than my recent lessons which had focused on partial-panel approaches. I don’t have much to say about the flying–make sure you are thorough about briefing the approaches before you fly them. Imagine flying them before you actually fly them, paying special attention that you don’t overlook minimum altitudes at intermediate points in the approach (trust me, you don’t want to bust minimums). Fly well and you will get your instrument rating on the spot and, trust me again, you will feel great. It is a huge accomplishment that only other pilots will truly understand (the general public seems perplexed by the concept of IFR).

The Flying

I got my instrument rating in mid-November, which hasn’t allowed much flying in actual clouds so far in the Northeast United States (my aircraft is not certified to fly in known-ice conditions). However, I’ve done some IFR flying, and look forward to the warmer months when my instrument rating will expand my opportunities to fly. In the meantime, I’m having scheduled maintenance performed during these cold months, and who knows, maybe I’ll get my multi-engine license…

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Aircraft Ownership : 6 month edition

My thoughts on owning a 1980 Mooney M20K-231, so far…

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1) Partner up!

There is just so much work involved in owning a small airplane, let alone the sheer cost of it all, that having another person to share responsibilities is crucial. I co-own N4006H with a friend who I met via a former instructor; we are in totally different points in our lives in terms of kids, careers, incomes, etc. But we share a common love of flying and especially for Mooney aircraft. From there we spent time building first mutual respect, then a friendship, as we went through the process of searching for the right airplane. There really is no disadvantage to having a partner–maybe even two partners–except for our inherent dislike of sharing anything. I’m not saying that partnering with just anybody with the means to buy an aircraft is a good idea. Go get to know this person, talk about what their goals and mission profile will be for the airplane. Talk about jobs and families and get used to sharing info you’d usually keep private, like salaries and medium-to-long term life and career goals. It is incredibly rewarding to share the experience of owning an airplane, but also very challenging, so you have to make sure you will be compatible. On another note, you might wonder how scheduling time works. Generally we check in with each other every week or so by text or email and discuss any planned longer trips in person. So far we haven’t had any conflicts that were difficult to resolve, and I expect we could both fly 150 hrs a year and still not have any trouble.

2) Things break–a lot–so be prepared mentally and financially.

Since we took possession of N4006H we’ve had problems with an oil leak, a broken Com 2 radio, and a failed vacuum pump. These are all relatively minor problems (the vacuum pump thankfully did NOT fail while in IMC!), but they certainly add up, each requiring 1-2 hrs of shop time plus whatever materials are needed for a fix. There are no shortcuts; things break and they are expensive and you will want them fixed right away because you were inevitably planning a cross-country to see your sister next week.
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Meeting my personal airliner

In mid-May, a friend and I bought a 1980 Mooney M20K 231.

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We spent a few months casually browsing Trade-a-Plane, Controller, and various other places for the right Mooney.

We made lists of all the contenders, with side-by-side comparisons. We narrowed them down to the best three. Then we would call and find out we had been too casual about it and the airplanes had already sold.

Trying not to feel too discouraged, I would tell myself it’s okay, take your time, find the right one. All the while fighting the fierce urge to own and fly one of these great machines.

Finally in late March, I proposed that we go see the guys at All American Aircraft in San Antonio, Texas.

Jimmy and Dave were clearly Mooney guys, with about a dozen examples on hand. I didn’t realize at the time they are among the most well known people in the Mooney circle, as well as the wider general aviation community.

I’m obsessed with Mooney aircraft, so being able to go and see hangars full of them was a near-religious experience. Each one evokes a feeling I just don’t get when I look at other airplanes–save for maybe King Airs and Aerostars–but certainly not other single engine planes.

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We weren’t looking for a K model. Our list consisted of about eight J models with one or two others (F, K). The airplane we eventually bought wasn’t on the list. We showed up at the tiny Kestrel Airpark (1T7) and were quickly immersed in the available Mooneys by Dave, an easy-going gentleman with a seemingly endless knowledge of Mooneys, and a very fine teacher to boot.

I’ll admit to loving about five different aircraft at first-sight. But when it came time to test fly one, we were drawn to a K model, N4006H. It hadn’t made it onto our list but I’m not sure why–great panel, low total time, relatively low price for a turbo model.

It spoke to us somehow, I’m not sure how to describe it, but we decided to fly it, and I would sit left seat first. I was as excited as I’ve been about almost anything else climbing into the left seat, with a distinct sense of awe of the machine around me–I wasn’t in a mindset to be a difficult sell.

Dave quickly walked me through the starting procedure, and on the first turn of the key the engine roared to life. The sensation was spine-tingling, lighting the fire of a six cylinder engine for the first time ever, getting lost in the sound of that throaty growl and the sense of raw power at my fingertips.

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Down the taxiway we went, all the while Dave walking through some of the intricacies of the plane, the avionics, and the engine. I could barely keep up as my heart pounded and my mind raced.

Departing from Kestrel is an interesting experience. It’s a 3000 foot runway but one end of it is sharply uphill. We were departing down that hill. I pushed the throttle forward to 30″ MP, then Dave coaxed me to nudge it up to 35″ MP. The airplane lept forward when I released the brakes and in no time we were airborne and the gear was coming up.

We were heading to Boerne Stage airfield (5C1) along with another Mooney from Jimmy and Dave’s collection. This was not only my first flight in a turbo Mooney, it was also the first time I’ve flown in formation with another aircraft.

We entered the pattern #2 behind the other Mooney, and on downwind Dave told me to land like I do in the J model, so I went through my typical pre-landing checklist, lowered the gear and slowed to 90 knots. I turned base, added flaps and reduced power, down to 80 knots. I was getting more and more nervous but I just stuck to the protocol, turned final, added the last bit of flaps, and tried to breathe and relax. Once over the threshold I pulled the power to idle and somehow coaxed the nose-heavy 231 to a very smooth landing with copious use of nose-up trim.

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In the end, we bought this airplane six weeks later, and flew it back to New Jersey where it currently lives. I will try to write a lot more about the purchase, the transition training, and the flying I’ve been doing–including getting my instrument rating. It has been such a joy, so challenging, and yet so rewarding, to have my own personal airliner.

 

United flight meets Clear-Air Turbulence over Montana

On Monday, United flight 1676 from Denver to Billings, Montana encountered a pocket of clear-air turbulence that rocked the plane so hard at least five people required hospitalization.

Joe Frank, 20, a passenger on board, told The Denver Post that everything was fine, then in an instant, the plane dropped violently, accompanied by a loud “bang”.

The turbulence lasted for what probably seemed like an eternity to the passengers, but was likely only 30 seconds or less. It was so transient that it doesn’t show up on the Flightaware track log, which reports data at one minute intervals. But regardless of how fast it was over, it must have been severe.

Passengers reported to television station KTVQ in Billings that one woman hit the ceiling so hard it cracked the panel above her head.

The phenomenon of clear-air turbulence is the main reason I always have my seat-belt buckled when I’m in my seat, regardless of what the “fasten seat-belt sign” is indicating. The atmosphere is too complex and dynamic, especially near the tropopause where most airliners cruise, and clear-air turbulence can be caused by any number of atmospheric variables.

Apparently, this week the atmosphere above most of the country is very turbulent, as shown by the current Turbulence AIRMET:

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That map, showing the possibility of turbulence from the surface up to 40,000 feet for most of the northern half of the country is confirmed by stacks of pilot reports (PIREPS) listing incidents of (mostly) moderate turbulence. If you are traveling and want to see if your flight might encounter turbulence (or many other weather phenomena), see the NOAA Aviation Weather Center. If you’re traveling this week, I’d recommend you buckle in at all times, it’s probably going to be rather bumpy at some point.

I wish a speedy recovery to all those injured on the flight yesterday.

 

Holiday Weekend Round-up

Today was President’s Day in the USA, when we all celebrate everything all of our Presidents have done for us by….well, anyway, lots of people get the day off of work so everybody decides to go skiing and the ski resorts are extremely overcrowded. That’s what happens on this day.

The holiday weekend here in the Northeast USA was another cold, snowy one, just after another major snowstorm that came through late last week. The mountains of snow piled up will take at least until June to fully melt, they are that high.

But it has been a bad weekend for aviation. First, in domestic general aviation, after January 2014 was among the safest months in general aviation, this weekend alone saw four fatal accidents which resulted in 7 deaths in the United States.

Cessna 210L (above, similar to the accident airplane) near Birmingham, AL

On Friday night, after 10pm EST, contact was lost with a Cessna 210 (registration N732EJ) flying near Birmingham, Alabama. The plane was found the next day in a very rural area, and the two occupants had not survived the crash. Only very sparse information is available, including that the plane was flying under IFR conditions. A front was moving through Birmingham at about the same time the aircraft was in the area. KBHM released a series of SPECI METAR updates, including one at 10:36pm EST calling winds 310 degrees at 7 knots, 5 mile visibility, broken cloud layers at 600 and 1400 feet, and overcast at 2300 feet. Rain had just ended at the airport. Some reports mention the possibility that the high winds may have been a factor in the crash. While the surface winds weren’t yet that high, I suppose it is possible that the winds were higher at around 3000 feet, and that wind shear or strong turbulence could have led to an upset and loss of control of the aircraft in the night IMC.

Beechcraft 35-33 Debonair near Telluride, CO

The Sunday crash of a Beech Debonair, similar to the one shown above, is very perplexing. It crashed just after takeoff, about a mile west of the airport, and killed the three occupants. The plane departed with three pilots on board, two commercial and one military, on a short IFR flight to Cortez, Colorado. The weather at the time was reported as winds 080 degrees at 5 knots, 2 miles visibility in light snow, and clouds overcast at 1200 feet. These conditions were improving, and the next METAR (1.5 hr later) listed ceilings at 7000-8000 feet and no snow. This airport is at a very high elevation (9,070 feet MSL), so the first speculative thought is to consider the performance capabilities of the airplane, likely close to max gross weight with three adults on board. The airport is in a narrow valley between peaks rising 5,000 feet on either side. Often, airplane crashes are not the result of any one thing, but a sequence of events. Steep terrain, low visibility in snow, and decreased performance due to high altitude has been shown countless times before to be a dangerous recipe.

Rans S-10 Sakota northeast of Houston, TX

A small homebuilt aircraft, similar to the one shown above, apparently suffered an in-flight breakup that killed its pilot. There is virtually no information available, except that witnesses heard a “loud bang” and that the airplane appeared to tumble out of the sky. The aircraft is one intended to perform aerobatics, so it’s possible that during a maneuver the load limits of the plane were exceeded, causing a structural failure.

Sonex aircraft in Wellington, FL

Another crash of a small homebuilt aircraft, similar to the one shown above, happened on Monday afternoon in south Florida. The airplane came to rest just off the end of the runway in a small lake, and the pilot did not survive the crash. Reports indicate the pilot may have been an extremely experienced American Airlines pilot, usually flying the 777. A witness thought the plane was experiencing engine trouble, as he heard several louds pops, like fireworks, before the plane went down. Another witness claimed the pilot was performing a “loop,” which was followed by the engine trouble and crash. In any case, it is disheartening to read of the loss of such an experienced pilot.

Elsewhere in the world

These crashes caused the untimely deaths of 7 people this weekend, and I send my deepest condolences to their friends and families. The above descriptions are in no way meant to place blame or judge the actions of the pilots, only to assemble any facts I can gather and to begin to try to make sense out of the accidents to better equip myself and pilots everywhere.

Elsewhere in the world, this weekend also saw the peaceful hijacking of a 767 on its way from Ethiopia to Rome. The co-pilot locked the captain out of the flight deck and flew the plane to Geneva, Switzerland to seek political asylum. More on this story later.

A Trip to the South: Final Leg Home

The last in a series of posts describing my trip to bring a Mooney to South Carolina for a pre-buy inspection. See the previous installment here. Last time, my Dad completed the pre-buy inspection in South Carolina, and we made the decision to stay overnight in Raleigh, North Carolina. We landed that evening at KRDU.

The next morning I woke up before dawn, and instinctively checked the weather on my phone. A strong cold front was racing across western Pennsylvania, with a dramatic shift in wind direction and an increase in wind speed to 30+ knots. The terminal area forecasts for New Jersey put the frontal passage at around noon, and I knew we would be racing it on our way back. We needed to leave…now.

My Aunt and Uncle, who had graciously let me stay at their beautiful home on very short notice, dropped me off at the airport.

My flight instructor, having stayed with his relative in the area, was dropped off about 10 minutes later. We took another look at the weather, that cold front was moving fast. “I think we can thread the needle,” he said. “It’s gonna be windy, but we can make it back.”
“Okay I’ll preflight, you file.” I replied, walking out the door to the ramp. I laughed when I saw what we were parked next to:
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The Cessna Citation X would have gotten us back a bit faster, but might have burned a bit more fuel.

I finished the preflight, my instructor climbed in, and I fired up the engine. A few minutes later he was calling Raleigh Clearance-Delivery and copying our IFR clearance back to Trenton-Robbinsville.

Three minutes later, after a run-up on the ramp area, we were cleared for takeoff. I poured on the coals and 20 seconds later we were in the air. We were cleared up to 7000 feet, and at altitude I could clearly make out the weather features we were racing home, with a sharp line of cirrus clouds curving to the north on our left. The flight really showed how great a Mooney can be. A very favorable tailwind gave us a max ground speed at 207 knots, while burning 10.9 gallons of fuel per hour. Under 90 minutes later I was going through the in-range descent checklist, and starting to bring back the power.

About 30 miles out we listened to Trenton ATIS, and inexplicably they were reporting “winds calm.” I knew this had to be false, all of the forecasts were calling for gusty NW winds. We checked another nearby airport: winds 260 at 18 gusting to 28–that’s a little more like it. They were also reporting wind shear. I knew it was going to be a challenging approach.

ATC cleared us to descend, and as soon as we were below 3000 feet we hit some continuous light chop. I kept pulling the power back, and at 2000 feet the turbulence increased to the moderate range. I entered the downwind leg of the pattern to Runway 29 at Robbinsville, and put the gear down. With all that extra drag the plane was really getting pushed around by the turbulence. I focused on correcting the large deviations, while relaxing on the stick enough to let the plane ride out most of the chop. I turned Base leg, did a GUMP check, took a breath and turned final. The turbulence increased as we got lower and slower. I elected to keep 10 kts extra speed on final, and didn’t extend the flaps all the way–typically a recipe to float a Mooney all the way down the runway, but not in this kind of wind. I wrestled the airplane down to ground effect, including through a moment of what I think was wind shear that made the plane feel like the bottom dropped out. A last gust pushed me off centerline but I kicked in right rudder and left aileron and eased the airplane on the ground. It really is true that you have to fly the airplane all the way to touchdown. With a big sigh of relief I pulled off the runway and taxied back to the parking spot, still covered with snow and ice. I realized I was sweating profusely, but it was a huge boost of confidence to land the airplane in those conditions, on the first try. It made me feel like I’ll be pretty good at this pilot thing.