Indiana Drones and the First Crusade

The FAA released a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” for the operation of unmanned aircraft systems weighing less than 55 pounds.

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David Martin/Flickr

Some of the proposed rules include:

  • Drone operators must be 17 years old and pass a knowledge exam
  • Operators must remain within line-of-sight
  • Fly at or below 500 feet
  • Fly no more than 100 mph
  • Airport flight paths, restricted airspace, and temporary flight restrictions are prohibited for drone operation

At first glance, I think those rules are mostly common sense, which is to say they seem to benefit us pilots flying aircraft more than people flying drones. They also prevent the kind of insanity Amazon hinted at when they proposed package delivery by drone service. I started imagining drones buzzing 100 feet above the treetops, mindlessly tracking to our doorsteps to drop off the newest iPad or a pair of boots or whatever. To be honest, I imagine much further out, with hundreds, thousands, swarms of drones zipping around; my imagination is probably too inclined to a dystopian sci-fi future.

The FAA will accept public comment for a few months, then they’ll deliberate for a while longer and finally make an official rule change in the public record. The problem is that us pilots don’t have as much influence as an entity such as Amazon, and I’m afraid that the balance of the rules, currently in favor of pilots flying aircraft, will tip towards the drone operators. It’s a classic situation, the drone operators can claim the government is harming a potential market with unnecessary regulations which will undermine the case for greater safety concerning the people flying aircraft (and their passengers), who have much more to lose than a drone operator.

Imagine if this 10 pound goose were a 30 pound quadcopter:

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Pilot in Hibernation

A few weeks ago I flew the Mooney from my home base in New Jersey to South Carolina. My father, a renowned aircraft mechanic currently working for Boeing, will spend the next several weeks completing the annual. At the same time, my partner in the aircraft and I decided to get the engine overhauled and the interior refurbished. It’s a huge project!

First, we bought the airplane last year with this work in mind. The engine was at about 1650 hours SFRM (since factory remanufacture), with a recommended time between overhaul (TBO) of 1800 hours. The interior, while functional, was not very comfortable and not at all fashionable. We negotiated the price of the aircraft down to reflect the need to take care of these two major issues.
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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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What will you do?

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When I tell people that I’m very close to getting my pilot’s license, I seem to get either of the following two responses:

1) Wow that is so cool!
-or-
2) What are you going to do with it?

I feel like I’ve gotten the second response a lot lately, and I have to try hard not to look at them like they’re the crazy person, which is how they seem to look at me.

What am I going to do with my pilot’s license?!

Some people seem to ask the question because they think it’s suicidal to fly small airplanes.

Sure there are risks. Flying is less forgiving of mistakes than almost anything I can think of. But my decision to finally get my license, after a lifetime of looking at the sky, comes with an understanding that it will mean another lifetime of dedication, practice, training, and retraining.

It comes with an acceptance of the responsibility to be Pilot In Command, to make the right decision, to respond calmly and correctly if/when things go wrong.

What am I going to do with my pilot’s license??!! I’m going to learn everything I can to be the best, safest, most skilled, and oldest pilot that I can be.

Some people seem to ask the question because I am not a wealthy man. One person (very close to me, but doesn’t understand flying at all) said it doesn’t make sense to get my license because I can’t afford to buy an airplane.

I soundly reject that opinion. I reject the possibility that flying is only reserved for rich people. I can’t buy an airplane right away, but I can afford to rent an airplane for an hour or two every week. I can afford to join a flying club. I can think about buying a share of an airplane.

What am I going to do with my pilot’s license?! I’m going to find ways to afford to fly as much as I can. It means so much to me that I don’t care if it’s expensive.

Some people seem to wonder why I would put the time and money in when it doesn’t help my career or my retirement savings account. I think these are the same people that always complain that their “work-life balance” is awful yet never go do something about it. Sure, flying for me will probably just be a hobby. An expensive one. But it’s a hobby I can use to go visit my family in other parts of the country, or see new places from an interesting perspective, or just get away from the frustrations of stop lights and traffic jams. It’s a hobby that’s more challenging, rewarding, and useful than anything else I do.

So, what am I going to do with my pilot’s license? I’M GOING TO FLY!!!

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Flight Training Update: a solo flight to Cape May

I was happy to find that, when it came time to fly my solo “cross-country” flights, I was allowed to choose where I would go.

I decided to pick places that I would actually fly to once I get my license. In my last post I described my flight to Reading, Pennsylvania (KRDG) which has an interesting approach from the east, is a quick 30 minute flight, and has an aviation museum and a restaurant with “good buffalo chicken wings” according to my flight instructor. While I probably will not vacation in Reading, I will certainly make that flight with passengers, as a so called “$100 hamburger” flight.

The next flight had me land in Scranton, Pennsylvania at KAVP. As I mentioned, I had been to that airport several times on commercial airlines to visit family. In fact, my entire extended family on my Mom’s side meets every summer in Scranton. The drive is almost 3 hours from my house, while the flight with a moderate headwind is less than an hour. My goal is to never have to drive to Scranton again!

After those flights, I still needed just over an hour of solo cross-country flying to meet the FAA minimum. I decided I would fly to Cape May, New Jersey at the southernmost point of the state.

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Cape May is a place I would like to visit: it is one of the more iconic destinations for a romantic weekend getaway in New Jersey.

Cape May From Above

But the drive is about 2.5 hours, and I haven’t been motivated to make the trip…until I can fly there!

I took a half-day off work and reserved my favorite Cessna 172S for a few hours in the morning. Again I scheduled it the day before the forecast arrival of a winter storm, and I scoured the weather reports and forecasts in the days leading up to the flight. A few days before, the 48 hour forecast seemed promising: light winds throughout New Jersey with visibility greater than 6 miles and ceiling above 12,000 feet. Perfect.

The night before the flight I spent a few hours on the basic flight planning. It almost felt like I was back in school, feverishly cramming for a big test the next day. I plotted the course and decided on checkpoints, calculated distances, alternates, and the sequence of radio frequencies I would likely use to communicate with air traffic control.

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I visualized what the descent and approach into Cape May County Airport would look like, and studied the airport diagram. Based on the forecast winds I had a good idea which runway I would be landing on. It is amazing how much it helps to go through a thorough planning routine, even for a short, simple flight. I know I can fly the airplane, but situational awareness is so key that going through a mental rehearsal while I plan a flight helps me stay ahead of the airplane during every phase of the trip. More on situational awareness in a future post…

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The next morning I woke up early to that subtle sense of anticipation that soon “I GET TO GO FLYING TODAY!!” Okay…so maybe it’s not so subtle. I should say that I sprang out of bed faster than I ever do when I have to go to work.

I arrived at the airport about an hour before my flight, which left me plenty of time to call Flight Services, obtain a full weather briefing for the flight, file a VFR flight plan, and finish calculating the magnetic heading, the pressure altitude, estimated ground speeds, and time en route based on the current wind conditions.

After a quick meeting with my flight instructor I was comfortable making the “Go” decision, and once it was finalized and I picked up the keys to the airplane my heart rate ticked up just a bit from the sheer excitement. I’m no longer nervous to fly solo, it’s just so so much fun.

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I think my iPhone camera is no longer suitable for these pics…

The preflight inspection, engine start, taxi, and run-up were all smooth. There was barely a breath of wind as I advanced the throttle and accelerated down the runway and eased the plane off the ground at 61 knots.

As I climbed to 6,500 feet I called the Flight Service Station and opened my flight plan, then contacted McGuire Approach to obtain VFR flight following. I could already see Philadelphia and Atlantic City, and just a few minutes later the entire shape of southern New Jersey came into view. I still had some 70 miles to go but I could already see Cape May. The airspace was quiet on a Friday morning, and the controllers were pleasant. I enjoyed the view as much as I could while I scanned the instruments and maintained course.

With about 10 miles to go I advised the controller that I had the field in sight and she released me to change frequencies and descend at my discretion. During the descent I dialed in the Cape May AWOS for the latest wind information, chose the appropriate runway for landing, and began setting up for the approach. As I descended through 2000 feet there was some light turbulence, but the approach and landing went well.

Then another aircraft called over the common traffic advisory frequency for Cape May that he was taxiing to a different runway–the intersecting runway–from the one on which I had just landed. I was worried–had I made an error in choosing this runway? I rechecked the AWOS. The winds were changing somewhat, but I was sure I made the right choice. Perhaps there is some sort of local preference for that runway–and to be honest, there was a crosswind component for both runways, I could have chosen the other and accepted a slightly stronger crosswind. Just to be safe I decided to takeoff on the same runway as the other airplane, and in taxiing across the field I passed the Wildwood Naval Air Station Aviation Museum. There was a row of old, forlorn-looking military transport aircraft on the ramp.

Again, apologies for the picture quality

Again, apologies for the picture quality–it’s not foggy, it’s just a scratched iPhone camera lens

I wondered about the stories those planes could tell, and was kind of melancholy seeing how most of them were gutted of essential parts, and are now nothing more than giant paper-weights and bird nests.

The takeoff was smooth and as I climbed up to 5,500 feet I contacted the same controller at Atlantic City. A few minutes later after I leveled off at cruising altitude I heard her give a traffic advisory to a Coast Guard aircraft, and I could tell she was talking about my airplane. I looked out the windshield and just then a Coast Guard Gulfstream IV jet came into view, just 1,000 feet above me passing to the east as I was flying north. That’s the closest I’ve been to another airplane while flying, and such a cool one at that!

The flight home was smooth and uneventful, and as I said “good-day” to New York Approach after he released me from radar service, I decided to practice a short-field landing back at Princeton…

Well, the cross-country flight was extremely fun, and I can’t wait to make the same flight with a passenger (think: romantic weekend getaway…+FLYING!!!). One important thing I learned, however, is that I need more practice on short-field landings!

Thanks for reading, until next time.

Brian