Why you still don’t have your flying car

Cover of Stick and Rudder

Get rid at the outset of the idea that the airplane is only an air-going sort of automobile. It isn’t. It may sound like one and smell like one, and it may have been interior-decorated to look like one; but the difference is—it goes on wings.

And a wing is an odd thing, strangely behaved, hard to understand, tricky to handle. In many important respects, a wing’s behavior is exactly contrary to common sense. On wings it is safe to be high, dangerous to be low; safe to go fast, dangerous to go slow …

—Wolfgang Langewiesche, opening of Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying (1944).

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You won’t believe these 5 amazing tricks with your old ADF!

Narco ADF receiver The clickbait headline is a joke, but there really is some life left in that old ADF receiver that you haven’t bothered to remove from your airplane panel yet. Here are some suggestions:

5. Estimate time to passing station
As you fly by an NDB, start when the
ADF needle is exactly off one of your wings (90° or 270° relative bearing on a fixed compass card), time how long it takes the needle to move 10°, then multiply the by 6 to get the approximate time to fly directly to the NDB—for example, if it takes 7 minutes for the needle to move 10°, it would take you more-or-less 7×6=42 minutes to turn and fly straight to the beacon (see the 1-in-60 rule), modulo winds and other approximations. For bonus points, pretend that it’s the 1930s, and you have a DC-3 full of passengers, in the clouds, with no other way to determine your position.
4. Tune in distant transmitters
ADF signals are AM (long wave), so they hug the ground rather than flying straight off at line-of-sight like a VOR signal. That means that if an NDB transmitter (or commercial AM radio tower) has enough watts, you’ll be able to receive it from surprisingly far away. There is still an enthusiasts’ group for spotting NDBs (I first wrote about it in 2004).
3. Listen to the news (or the game)
While commercial AM stations are rarer than they used to be, there are still lots of them, and unlike satellite radio, they don’t require a subscription. Tune in a few: in Canada, the last time I checked, the frequencies were still listed in the Canada Flight Supplement for emergency navigation use.
2. Watch for storms
Don’t throw out your radar, satellite weather link, and/or lightning detector, but an ADF needle will tend to flicker back and forth towards distant lighting, so it’s at least one extra confirmation that there’s bad weather nearby (the needle may also flicker as you pass from water to land, but I’ve never experienced that personally).
1. Navigate, and fly holds and approaches
The ADF isn’t a precision navigation tool, but it still is a useful backup for when GPS is down or jammed. Victor airways, based on line-of-sight VORs, often have high minimum altitudes, which can put you in clouds and icing; because NDB signals hug the ground, NDB airways (where they still exist) or NDB-to-NDB navigation let you stay much lower. Besides, in an emergency, it’s nice to have a needle (besides the GPS) that just says “the airport is this-a-way.” While I suspect I’m alone in this, I like NDB holds and approaches because of their simplicity — once I’ve tuned in the frequency, there are literally no other knobs to touch until I land.

Are there any other ADF/NDB fans still out there?

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Icing and sublimation

On Friday, when I was flying back from Fredericton to Ottawa, I picked up a splash of clear ice in a cloud top over Maine.

I use my Outside Air Temperature (OAT) probe as an early ice detector, since thinner surfaces collect ice before fatter ones (like a wing). Here’s what I saw:


I immediately climbed higher, even though the air was colder (-12°c), because I knew that the sunlight would cause the ice to sublimate, passing straight from frozen to vapour without ever thawing. These pictures show what happened over the next half hour:





Sublimation is much slower than thawing, so if you have the choice to descend into warmer air, do it. When there’s just a trace, though, and you can get safely above the clouds, sublimation isn’t a bad option.

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Four digits


Earlier this month, after passing another 2-year IFR flight assessment, I discovered that my total flight time added up to 999.9 hours. This morning, as soon as the wheels left the runway, I finally joined the four-digit club, a couple of years later than planned, but still with a smile on my face.

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Diagnose this: rough engine on approach

Airplane: Piper Warrior II (O-320 engine)
Airport: CYGK (north shore of Lake Ontario
Time: afternoon
Weather: CAVU; 15°c OAT; prevailing westerly winds, but airport in local light lake breeze from the south

About five miles back from landing today, I noticed the engine running rough whenever I reduced power — it was fine above 2,200 RPM, but started vibrating at any lower setting, enough that the plane (carbureted) shook noticeably. I accepted the vibration, landed, and taxied to the ramp, with the plane still shaking. I switched mags while taxiing and tried different mixture settings, with no difference. When I tried to shut down with the mixture lever, the engine kept running (even at full lean), and I had to stop it with the mags.

Your diagnosis? (I’ll post the answer in a day or two).

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Personal IFR minima

One big source of stress around flying is indecision: if all things (people, weather, and equipment) are perfect, it’s an easy choice to fly; if something’s clearly awful (you have the flu, there’s freezing rain, the plane has a major mechanical problem), it’s an easy choice not to fly. If it’s somewhere in the middle, the stress starts — is it really worth letting yourself or other people down because of a forecast for a chance of X or Y that probably won’t happen?

To reduce that stress, I’ve long wanted to put together sets of personal weather minima. Here’s my first draft, for IFR flight in a Piper Cherokee.

Personal day IFR minima

  • Destination forecast meets standard alternate minima for ceiling or visibility, or a nearby larger airport does.
  • Freezing level forecast at least 2,000 feet above MEA.
  • No worse than scattered CB forecast along route.
  • No severe turbulence forecast along route (at my altitudes).
  • Always within 60 minutes of a usable diversion airport.

Personal night IFR minima

  • All day IFR minima.
  • Freezing level forecast at least 4,000 feet above MOCA.
  • No worse than isolated CB, TCU, or ACC forecast along route.
  • Always within 45 minutes of a usable diversion airport.
  • No CB or TCU forecast at destination.

I don’t want the minima to be so lengthy that I ignore them, so strict that I start making exceptions, or so lax that they don’t really help me make the fly/no-fly decision. I’m very interested in feedback from other pilots — please let me know what you think, good or bad.

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Pilot advice on OurAirports?

I’m still hoping to do a responsive redesign on OurAirports if I can wedge some free time into my schedule. I’ve also been thinking about how to make the site less CRUDy (browsing lists of things) and more generally useful (helping people do stuff).


Yesterday, I was playing around with a new METAR parsing class, and I realized how easy it would be to start offering advice to people based on the weather and other information. The advice would be fairly generic, and couldn’t (in most cases) take into account local special conditions, but there’s still a lot you can do with a small amount of information:

  1. You can mark the conditions generically as VFR, MVFR, IFR, or LIFR.
  2. You can warn pilots to keep an eye open for icing (freezing precip or low ceiling in low temps), wind shear (big difference between winds aloft and surface winds), strong winds, unforecast fog (small temp/dewpoint spread), unforecast convective activity (high dewpoint), etc.
  3. You can warn passengers to check for weather-related delays based on some of the above, combined with how busy the airport is.
  4. You can tell passengers whether there might be a bumpy ride on approach or climb-out
  5. You can check the available runways to see if there will be strong crosswinds.
  6. In a fancy implementation, you could look at the surrounding DEM and suggest whether the ceiling might be low enough to hide surrounding hills (etc.), even if conditions are otherwise VFR.

Is this a good idea?

Does this sound interesting to you as a private pilot, commercial pilot, or airline passenger? It wouldn’t be meant to replace real pilot weather briefings, but rather to give you a single-glance overview on your computer or smartphone screen before you start the real prep. For passengers, it would give them an idea of when to expect problems at airports, before the delays start showing up on the big screens.


I was even thinking of creating two personalities, an Airport Old-Timer in a rocking chair on the FBO porch (pilot advice) and the Frequently Flyer in a business suit (passenger advice), but that feels a bit too much like resurrecting Clippy.

How else might I take OurAirports past a data repository to something genuinely useful to pilots and airline passengers? Advice is welcome, even from talking paperclips.

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