Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Aviator tools and Apps in the cockpit

I work with some very tech savvy pilots. Many tweet more than the birds in my back yard;their Blackberry's were replaced by an iPhone or Droid some time ago, not to mention the iPads that come out at lunch time in the pilot lounge. Recently at our April "Wings/Call Back Workshop" Galvin CFII Chris Smith gave an excellent talk about the almost 200+ aviation apps available where he attempted to quantify value and show the pitfalls of this fast evolving and almost surreal market. We had room for 50 but several more pilots crowed in for standing room to listen to the presentation which had the unique title of "Down the Rabbit Hole" (Alice in Wonderland). Now, I've personally held off buying an iPhone or an iPad, because I'm not sure I can really justify their use. Interestingly, that was one of the summations of Chris's talk, I.e. can that app on your iPhone, Droid, or iPad really enhance the safety of your flight? And if so-when?

Right now, the grand majority of the apps do their finest work in the preflight planning stages making those pesky calculations on weight and balance, take off performance and routing really simple and fast to do. Of course, you still have to take a moment to plug in the info and there are those pilots that are just too busy.

While many apps are intended to be used in the cockpit one should consider if you've the room, cabin altitude for the unit(some have 10,000MSL limit), the ability to divert attention from hands on flying, and screen readability or reflectivity in sunlight. Yup, lots of things to think about and it's your call on that one.

If you've already decided that the "i" gizmo is for you then you might consider Hilton Software's Wing X Pro 7. It was designed and built by a team led by Dr. Hilton Goldstein. When I was with Seattle Avionics years ago, Hilton would call to discuss some changes in the Voyager or Smart Chart platform that he was adapting to his then PDA program called Wings X. His calls were so candid you could feel the energy and excitement in his voice about the product he was creating. Recently, Bruce Williams, a fellow CFI here at Galvin, wrote a product review on Hilton's latest version of Wing X for the smart phone/pad market. It's a great read.

When it comes to apps, take a look at the field; just the time spent in the journey is almost an adventure through the looking glass.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

On Being a CFI...

When the rains start lashing the Serengeti plains it signals the return of the Central African rainy season. With no flying to do a pilot travels from her home in Africa to request my services for a Flight Review. I was pleased to see this person once more as I am in awe of her skill and daring working as a professional pilot in a part of the world that has mystery, intrigue, abysmal airports, limited flight aids, possibly unhappy natives, and many dangers lurking in the grass. This time her spirits, so bright and high in the past, seemed dim- almost as if she was suffering from a malaise. I knew she was flying a Cessna Caravan in a very exciting area of Africa and doing a great job for her company, yet as we started on the ground portion of the review she seemed hesitant as if she doubted her abilities. I always give a little test that is based upon the level of the pilot’s certificates and ratings and as usual she aced it. Since she hadn’t flown the G1000 system in a year or so, we went into one of our FTD’s to get her G1000 skills up to speed. Little by little the spirit I had known started to reappear and that afternoon she accomplished the flight portion with professional aplomb.

After the review I noticed in her logbook that she had had some training in the previous year from a well known nation-wide flight school. She grimaced, acknowledging the training and then told me the story. A prospective employer had offered her a better job if she had a US multi-engine ATP. While she had thousands of hours flying single engine recip’s and turbo props, she had less than 30 hours in twins spread over a two-year period and all based upon a foreign multi-engine rating. So, trusting the ads in the aviation magazines and comments on the web she flew to the states to get her multi-engine ATP at this well-known organization.
The flight school and the CFI assigned to her could see no problem with her obtaining a multi-engine ATP in just 5 hours with her very modest experience, even if it was in a different make and model twin and all of that flying in VMC conditions. It came down to the color of her money.
The CFI seldom acknowledged her presence when she came to the school each morning and his daily pronouncements that he was counting time until the regional carriers hired didn’t help. He didn’t seem to care if she understood the aircraft systems nor was the guidance given particularly helpful if it was about time for lunch. Through this all the ATP PTS was discussed for about 10 minutes in total. On check ride day the staff DPE seemed in a hurry and seemed to have an attitude that he didn't wish to be there. The oral section went into areas different from the tasks she had been advised to prepare; but a smart gal she kept that part of the evaluation together. The flight portion of the evaluation went badly almost from the get go. Clutching her pink slip she came back in two days for more training (same looser CFI) and took another check ride gaining another pink slip. Emotionally devastated and thousands of dollars lost, she returned to Africa and a year later was sitting across the table from me telling the story.

I asked her if she wanted to still get an ATP. Yes, she did, but she couldn’t afford to do it in a multi. Ok, why not get a single-engine ATP now and get the multi-engine add-on at a later date? She became very cautions and asked, “Do you really think I can fly to those standards?” Knowing her excellent work over the last six years I replied to the affirmative and we began to train the next day. With one day’s study she retook and passed Her ATP written with a 94%. For the next five days each morning was a session in a G1000 FTD or ground discussions on the ATP PTS; each afternoon-rain, wind, or shine we flew numerous approaches at the local airports. This Saturday we flew to Bellingham (KBLI) and the bright and positive applicant was presented to DPE Rick Luke (aka Officer Luke, Bellingham PD-Retired) for the ATP check. Needless to say, she passed with the professional skill that is part of her character and exemplary stick and rudder ability.

The road to the airlines or corporate world in one many a CFI has walked, and granted it is seldom lucrative or without ruts. But the student still should expect our best and nothing less. What ever we teach, what ever we say will stay with that student-sometimes forever. Right or wrong it becomes part of the how they fly and can become the key to their success or failure at a critical moment.
Good instructors are not found by counting the ripped shirt tails on a wall proclaiming a successful solo or official looking plaques behind his/her desk; nor is the one with the cheapest rates or the most flight time in heavy equipment the best choice. Being a good CFI is more than skill at maneuvering an airplane or knowledge of all the endorsements required in an applicant’s logbook. To me, it is an attitude and keenness to stress the fundamentals when one is learning at the early stages and then continuing to require that you the student, no matter your ratings or accumulated flight time not only measure up to-but EXCEED-the bar for what ever level certificate or rating you quest. Being a good CFI also requires understanding and a bit of psychology giving praise when things go well but straightforward counseling when needed. How this is accomplished is by wearing many hats during the training and anything less is a disservice to the student and to your CFI certificate. Your comments?

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Like most student pilots I was shown how to perform a pre-flight by my first instructor. For the first few hours I performed each pre-flight in a cautious and exacting manner-then it became rather ho-hum and sloth took over. Luckily, I started working after school and on week ends as a mechanics helper/gas boy/broom pusher at the airport for a mechanic/flight instructor named Dale Grenniger. Under Dale’s sometimes strict guidance I finally learned the importance of a pre-flight.

This was 1957, when there were four grades of aviation fuel, 80/87 (red), 91/96 (green), 100/110 (blue) and 115/145 (purple). Man, did that 115/145 smell goooood. Through the hanger doors were rolled some very unique airplanes for our service. Sure there were “modern” aircraft by Cessna, Piper, Mooney or Beech, but now and then came a Model 17 Staggerwing, a Stearman or N-3-N used for aerial application, the big single engine Fokker with a corrugated fuselage out of the Idaho wilderness, a Gull-Wing Stinson or Fairchild 24 and a sexy corporate A26. None of these airplanes were polished like you see at Oshkosh today. These were working airplanes and each had their “hiccups”.

We saw things hay-wired or doped together that you would not believe. Exhaust stack supports that had long ago rotted and broken away leaving the stack held by wire or in one case allowed to bend with the relative wind. Once we started an annual inspection on a crop duster but Dale called it off. He had placed his pliers on the top wing for a moment when we heard the tool hit the floor. Thinking it had slid off the wing I went down the ladder to retrieve it and looked up to see a hole punched through both wings. The fabric was so rotten, only fading paint held the brittle cloth fibers’ together.

Usually it is the professional pilots that are the least casual about pre-flights. You learn that to survive one must be wary. During one of my furloughs, I was asked to deliver a light twin from Florida to New Mexico. But when I got to the airplane there was no pilot seat, only three wooden Coca-Cola cases. The owner said the pilot seat had been stolen but it was OK to fly the airplane because the crates were stable. He was very unhappy when I said no. Later I learned the bank was in the process of repossessing the plane and had sent someone to take the seat in hopes it would ground the airplane until a repo-man could fly her away.

Another time I was asked to fly a Cessna 170B from a farmer’s strip to the city to be sold. During the pre-flight I found the control lock was nothing but 16-penny nail-simply bent to fit. The nail was such a loose fit and the hole in the control column so out of round one could almost fool one’s self into believing there was full control movement-unless you looked closely enough to pull out the nail. The owner had flown the Cessna almost daily from his farm strip to town until the day he died in a car wreck. His wife called the 170 ‘his truck’ and that’s exactly what it looked like. Dirt and grit caked everything. The engine oil looked like Oklahoma crude and one fuel tank was a quarter full of water. The flap track assembly was so worn from use and lack of service the manual flaps would not lock in the up position. The pilot’s seat rails were so worn the owner had drilled a hole through the rail and then into the fuselage after which he stuck a screwdriver into the new hole to keep his seat from sliding backward. I passed on that one too.

One time in the Caribbean a friend complained that he could not raise the gear and had flown 300 miles to the maintenance base in San Juan with it stuck down. When we inspected the airplane, I found a very rusty “C” clamp used as an unapproved gear pin. It was placed well up in a dark, oily wheel-well where it was hard to see and had no markings or flags.

There are countless examples makeshift items such as masking tape holding circuit breakers in place or a wadded up aluminum gum wrapper used in the place of a fuse. The airplane you fly may be of a new design with the nicely engineered and organized layouts common to TAA aircraft. Yet, be it new or old there is never any reason for not doing a through pre-flight. You never know what you may discover and if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong in the air; just when you don’t need the aggravation. I guarantee it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Los Pilotos Cubana-The Cuban Pilots

I had the pleasure of flying with and knowing a large group of Cuban’s 40+ years ago. They had all left their country after Castro took over. A couple of them stole boats; one flew his whole extended family out in a large Russian crop duster. Several left the island as crew members at the controls of a Cubana Airlines transport. They crossed into Florida, Santo Domingo, Panama, or walked off a plane during a fuel stop in Canada into an uncertain future. The ones that took a plane or commanded it were on Castro’s death list. All missed home.

Not one was the same, a mixed bag of educated gentlemen that contained scoundrels, adventurers, thinkers, comics, and businessmen. The majority ended up flying with the CIA in the Congo then going to Miami or Puerto Rico to work at what flying jobs they could find. For a few warm years I flew as their co-pilot in some tired freighter or passenger plane as we crisscrossed the length and breadth of the Caribbean. The older men taught me patience and polished my skills, the younger challenged me to be as much a man as they thought they were. Machismo ran deep.

Mike Encisco had flown in the RAF during WWII. He lived for electronics and he taught me amateur radio. Armando Piedra had been a senior pilot at Cubana and was a skilled SCUBA diver. He had been the first man in Cuba to use an Aqua Lung. From Piedra I learned to think logically in emergencies, the meaning of command, to care about family, and to dive. Reginaldo B. was an excellent pilot and one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever met; yet he got messed up in the fast money drug world. He was smart, so smart he ended up spending 15 years in a Spanish jail.

They’ve scattered to the wind or gone to their reward. Yet, I think of them as we were-sitting in the cockpits at night. The soft blue reflections from the flames exiting the engine exhaust stacks from four throbbing engines flickering against the cockpit ceiling, the dark ocean below us and the deep black of the night sky with pin points of starts winking about us. Armando would bring out his charts of the stars and point out those galaxies that guided him across the Atlantic so many times. Miguel would try to contact another Ham on the SSB, trolling for some remote spot in the world. Pablo would tell me about his latest “chica” gesturing with eyes and hands about her form and dimensions.

The hour’s pass and land comes into view. We are on old Blue 4 and the lights of Cuba begin to twinkle below, Florida is still 150 miles ahead. Armando puts his star charts away and retreats within himself. He is looking at the land that he is able to see between the spaces from the cockpit to the #2 engine. Bending close to the windscreen, the reflected light from the engine exhaust is brighter and animated on his face.

The faint lights below us wink out one by one as we pass out to sea. In the coal dark sky ahead faintly a few pinpoints of lights begin to appear. I contact Miami Center and say hello. Armando is now looking aft of the wing; a faint glimmer to the west is all he can see of his Cuba; but of that he treasures like a man glimpsing his last sunrise.

He turns to me and says very quietly, “Do juu know what et iss never to go back to home, Osswald?” then he turns his head to the window and remains quiet for the next few minutes.

I was truly blessed to fly with these gentlemen of Cuba. I miss them.