Link: Private pilots pushed out of hangars at Toronto island airport

Porter contends that the Q400 turboprop planes it flies qualify the airline’s activities as general aviation.

I love Porter as an airline, but that statement (if accurately reported by Macleans) is BS of the worst kind. Porter is trying to claim that it’s a general-aviation operation because the tripartite agreement governing CYTZ calls for the preservation of GA at the airport, and Porter has been working to squeeze out resident GA (though they’re great with transients).

Porter knows perfectly well, though, that it doesn’t operate under the sections of the CARs (Canada) or the FARs (US) that govern GA, but is regulated as an airline, just like Air Canada or Westjet.  Let’s hope the Toronto Port Authority isn’t as stupid as Porter assumes.

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Less noise in the cockpit

I took this morning off and went for my first flight of 2013. Something was wrong with my Bose headset or its batteries, so I had to do without noise cancellation, but it was a wonderfully-quiet flight in a different way.

Toys or no toys?

Normally, I mount a Garmin 696 portable GPS on my yoke, with a full-colour moving map, terrain and obstacle alerts, live satellite weather, nearby traffic alerts fed from a Zaon XRX, and even XM satellite radio. For a long cross-country flight, that stuff is very helpful, letting me see and plan for what’s happening 200 miles ahead and listen to the BBC to kill the long hours. It does, however, require a yoke mount and a complex series of power, antenna, and audio wires threaded carefully out of the way around the cockpit.

I had planned to reinstall all of that before flying (I removed it for the plane’s annual last month), but then I looked at the beautiful, simple panel with its analog “steam” gauges, looked up at the blue sky, and asked myself “why bother?”

I took off and followed frozen rivers around Eastern Ontario at 2,000 ft. I started without the map, but pulled it out for fun to identify towns and villages whose names I didn’t know (for the bigger ones, I just read the water towers).

After 2 1/2 months without flying, my pre-flight skills were a bit rusty (I forgot to remove the pitot cover, and had to shut down and restart on the taxiway), but my stick-and-rudder skills were surprisingly good — the altimeter seemed to stay pegged on 2,000 ft even when I was distracted enjoying the scenery, wind-correction angles set themselves, etc.

Too much information?

I don’t think I suddenly became a better pilot, especially after almost a full season away from the cockpit. My only conclusion is that I was less distracted. I’ve never been one of those fools who flies head-down playing with the toys instead of looking out the window, but still, every piece of information available to me is something my brain has to process, whether I’m consciously focussing on it or not. Without the GPS hurling groundspeed and heading at me, without the traffic system telling me there was another plane 2 miles away, without pictures of airports and airspace scrolling across a colour screen a couple of feet from my face, I simply didn’t have as much to think about.

Modern avionics are great, and in many situations — complex airspace, IFR, etc. — they actually lower the workload. But for an easy VFR flight in familiar airspace, I think that leaving it packed away made me a better pilot.

Further reading: Eight years ago, as a fairly new pilot, I posted about something similar for the instrument scan in Analog Flying. I strongly suspect that’s the best article — and possibly the only truly useful one — that I’ve posted in this blog.

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10 years as a pilot

Ten years ago today, I passed a flight test and received my Private Pilot’s License (PPL) in a rented Cessna 172 (C-GPMR) at the Ottawa Flying Club.

I’d been worried about turbulence — I didn’t quite have my flying stomach yet, and had nearly thrown up all over the panel during the practice test with my instructor a day or two earlier — but the late-afternoon air that day was still and smooth, and while I didn’t cover myself with glory in every exercise, I did perform them all to the examiner’s satisfaction. After I landed back at Ottawa Airport and started taxiing towards the club, the examiner told me that I’d passed, and was a licensed pilot.

At the time, I knew what my immediate next steps would be: a night rating, then an instrument rating. But after that, what? I had no interest in going on to get my commercial license and instructor rating so that I could teach flying myself on the weekends, and if I just kept renting planes for short local flights, I’d probably get bored in a couple of years (like most new PPLs do). As much as I hate to admit it, the “oh my god I’m in the air!!!” thrill fades after a while, and taking off or landing is about as exciting as parallel parking a car.

As it turns out, I’ve flown a lot over the past 10 years, though I’m still just a bit short of the magic 1,000 hour mark. In December 2002, I bought a used 1979 Piper Warrior and started using it for family trips and business travel (it helped that my consulting customer base suddenly shifted from the California to the US northeast). I flew a lot. I flew in rain, snow, dodged thunderstorms, tried to avoid (and dealt with) icing, and learned how weather changes over long flights. My first big cross-country was four hours to Sault Ste Marie in 2003, before I had my instrument rating, and I got weathered in for a day in North Bay on the way back. Around the same time, I did my first flight down into New York Approach airspace, and didn’t find it frightening at all. Soon, many other trips to big and small airports followed: Montreal, Toronto Island, Halifax, Philadelphia, Gaspé, Washington DC, Boston, Winnipeg, etc. (check out this map of all the airports I’ve flown to). I joined Hope Air as a volunteer pilot, and learned what it’s like to fly on someone else’s schedule and make the kind of complicated go/no-go risk assessments that commercial pilots have to make every day.

I thought I’d upgrade to a faster plane before now, but I’m happy with my Warrior. It’s slow in cruise, and it can barely climb above 7,000 ft on a hot summer day at maximum gross weight (I actually lose altitude in downdrafts), but I’ve been through pretty-much everything with it and know that I can trust it. I know that it will meet the performance numbers in the manual for taking off from a short grass strip with unforgiving trees looming at the end, I know it will let me land safely in a 20+ kt straight crosswind, I know it will keep flying with a bit of ice on the wings and the windshield frosted over, I know it will still let me sort-of control it inside a fast-building TCU, and I know that the heater will keep me from hypothermia when the outside temperature is -38°c. I know that I can get a folded-up wheelchair in through the front door and over the seat when a Hope Air patient shows up with one unannounced (thanks to my flying buddy Mike Hopkinson for help with that one).

Perhaps more importantly, my kids got to grow up seeing Canada and the US from the air as well as from the car window. Halifax is 4 hours away rather than 2 days. The Bay of Fundy looks like a bay. The customs guy in Beverly MA remembers us every year, and likes to chat about the Red Sox with my daughter. We park beside bizjets. At Teterboro Airport near NYC, my daughters used the same lounge as Oprah (though not at the same time).

I don’t fly as much as I used to — more like 70 hours/year vs 120 early on — and if I had a faster, more complex plane, I might have to give it up, because it would cost a lot to own and fly (fuel, insurance, and maintenance costs for my Warrior are a bit less than they would be for a second family car), and I’d have to fly a lot more to stay safe in it. C-FBJO and I are a good fit.

So there we go. I wonder if I’ll still be flying in another 10 years.

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Control feedback

Co-pilot's sidestick from an Airbus A321.

Control feedback is important to pilots. Through the yoke or stick, we can feel what’s happening with the plane; for example, are we pulling or pushing too hard on the stick? Are the controls mushy, indicating that we’re close to a stall? Are they fluttering, possibly because of misbalanced control surfaces or icing? Are they bouncing round in turbulence? This stuff is so important that sophisticated, fly-by-wire airliners, which have no direct connection from the yoke or stick to the control surfaces, actually simulate some of it.

I do most of my flying as the only pilot in my small plane, so I never considered how important control feedback is for feeling what the other pilot is doing. It turns out that lack of that kind of feedback is one of the major links in the accident chain that brought down Air France 447 in 2009, as described in detail in annotated CVR transcript in this Popular Mechanics article.

Throughout the incident, one of the pilots was panicking and pulling all the way back on his stick. It wasn’t the thunderstorms that brought the plane down, but a mush from 37,500 ft all the way down to sea level. At any point before the last few thousand feed, the jet would have recovered if the pilot had simply released the stick. The psychology of stress and panic are complicated, and I’m not writing this to condemn the poor pilot who did that; however, the point of requiring two people in the cockpit is that if one is incapacitated (whether by panic or illness), the other can take over.

In this case, however, the other pilot wasn’t aware of the problem, because a crucial piece was missing: Airbus designed the A330 with asynchronous control sticks — that means that the pilot in the left seat had no easy way of knowing that the pilot in the right seat was holding the stick all the way back, because the other stick remained in a neutral position. At one point, when he did push his stick forward, the Airbus simply averaged the two inputs — to me, that makes about as much sense to as averaging two wheels on a ship, when one wheelman turns 15 degrees to the left of an iceberg, and the other turns 15 degrees to the right.

There were many other causes in the accident chain, of course (for example, the pitot tubes initially iced over, so the flight computer didn’t have good airspeed readings, and it shut off the system meant to prevent pilots from stalling the plane), but the glaring one seems to be Airbus removing, by design, a cockpit-resource-management tool that almost every other type of aircraft has: the ability to see and feel the other pilot’s control inputs.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone who knows Airbus’s reasoning behind designing asynchronous control sticks and (in some control regimes) averaging the inputs.

(Photo credit: Flying China Man blog)

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The complicated finances of flying

The original news story was simple: pampered general uses private government jet for personal trip(s) at total cost of more than $1M to taxpayers over three years. The Prime Minister smelled a scandal and tried to nip it in the bud by suggesting public figures repay personal travel costs.

Fixed vs incremental costs

Unusually for a public figure, however, the general in question actually stood up for himself and decided to treat us like adults and explain how things work. The situation is remarkably similar to the finances of owning a small plane (if you knock a couple of zeros off the end of the dollar values), so it’s worth summarizing here:

  • The $10,000/hour quoted cost is the total cost of ownership, not the incremental cost. The bulk of that is the fixed costs (purchase, maintenance, etc.) divided by flying time. Most of those costs are incurred regardless of whether the government’s two Challenger jets take extra trips. The incremental cost of flying one of the jets (fuel, maintenance based on flight hours, etc.) is $2,360 for each extra hour it flies.

  • The government doesn’t use the jets often enough for the crews to maintain legally-required recency, so they have to do a lot of empty training flights to make up enough hours. Last year, the jets flew 170 hours empty between them to help the crews meet requirements.

So when the press says the general spent $1.5M over three years flying for personal reasons (presumably ~150 hours), the first thing to realize is that that really represents $354,000 in extra incremental costs, or just over $100,000/year — still a lot, but not nearly so shocking (in the late 1990s, my customers spent over $50,000/year more than one year flying me around on the airlines for my consulting work).

Crews have to fly

The second thing to realize is that the pilots have to fly anyway. So imagine an exchange like this:

Jane Pilot: Good morning, sir. My first officer and I need another 8 hours this month to stay current. Instead of our flying in circles around Ottawa practicing approaches, would you like to tag along and go somewhere?

General: Well, captain, my friend gave me tickets for the Calgary Stampede.

Jane Pilot: Perfect — that will be just about right. See you tomorrow morning at 0800, sir.

This conversation will make perfect sense to an aircraft owner, but might be too complicated to explain in the public — we’ll see. I’ve had similar conversations with friends when I’ve needed to make up required hours (a pilot who doesn’t fly often enough isn’t safe, and sometimes isn’t legal). Of course, my incremental operating costs are a lot lower (maybe $70/hour for fuel, oil, and engine depreciation), but who’s counting?

Not the same as a corporate jet

If these were privately-owned corporate jets, of course, they could be leased out when they’re not needed, and the owner would make money and give the crew their hours. These jets, however, are full of sensitive equipment, so that the Prime Minister (for example) can monitor or order military attacks from the air. We probably don’t want a rich developer renting one to fly his gulf buddies to Florida.

It’s also worth mentioning that in at least one case, the jet was offered to the general because he missed the first part of a family on a trip to be present for the return of slain Canadians from Afghanistan. That’s a hard one to object to.

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What happens after you get your private pilot license?

Yesterday was the 9th anniversary of the day I passed my flight test and got my private pilot’s license (PPL). It was also, coincidentally, the longest straight-line distance I’ve flown in a day, 930 nautical miles (1,722 km) from Winnipeg to Ottawa. When a fellow aviator made a comment about Ground School on Google+, it got me thinking about how stunningly different flight training was from actually flying after I got my PPL. Here’s my comment, based on my first 9 years and 860 hours …

I agree: primary flight training has surprisingly little to do with what you’ll actually need to know to fly, unless your future flying is limited to taking flight tests and then working as an instructor.

I’ve met new pilots whose instructors have taught them that it’s “cheating” to use a GPS. Is it cheating to use the VOR receiver, then? What about the printed charts? I guess the trim wheel is cheating too, since it makes it too easy to hold the yoke. Pilotage and dead-reckoning are useful skills to learn and practice, but they should be maybe 10% of the navigation training for your PPL, not 90%. The 1930s were a long time ago.

You’ll always use a GPS for long cross-country flights, with or without backup from land-based navaids and your own pilotage (I still look out the window and mark my position and time on the VNC when I cross landmarks – it’s good to stay aware in multiple ways). You’ll use your GPS more than anything else in the plane besides the yoke, rudder pedals, and throttle; in fact, you’ll use it more than the throttle, which you might not touch for 4 hours on a long flight.

You’ll never sit down before a trip and put together a navigation log with the winds and groundspeed for every leg — that’s just a waste of time with modern flight-planning websites and applications. Instead, you’ll spend all that time worrying about your fuel stops: How late will the attendant be there (or will the self-serve pump actually work)? Are you cutting it too close for time/distance? If they’re fogged in, how far is the next one? Are there landing, handling, or ramp fees? Will the washroom be locked after 5:00? Can you get a taxi into town? Is there cell phone reception? How will you close your flight plan? Is there anywhere to get food?

You will learn to respect the weather like a medieval monk fearfully respected his God, and after many painful experiences over a few years, you’ll know more about weather than any ground school ever tried to teach you. At first, you learn to read what’s in the forecasts (GFAs, FDs, TAFs, etc.); eventually, however, you learn to read what’s not in the forecasts (“that much moisture north of Lake Superior means Marathon might be fogged in, even though it’s not forecast”; “I bet there will be a break in the storm line over the cool water of Lake Nippissing”; “I don’t trust the storms not to build up earlier with the winds blowing that way over the hills”), and that’s when you start flying well.

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My new autopilot in instrument conditions

This week, I gave my new autopilot its first workout in instrument conditions, climbing out through a low cloud layer in Ottawa, bumping through heavy rain clouds over Vermont and New Hampshire, and flying a localizer approach into Beverly Airport near Boston.

First, I’ll provide a bit of background. The autopilot has four modes as currently configured (without altitude support):

  • ST: stabilization mode, which keeps the wings level (or in a bank angle selected by rotating a small knob). In this mode, I can fly a hyper-stabilized plane, much like the over-simplified flight model in Microsoft Flight Simulator. Other autopilots sometimes refer to this as WL (wing-leveler mode).

  • HD: heading mode, which keeps the plane flying on a specific heading that I select using a bug on the heading indicator. The bank angle will vary as necessary to maintain the heading; for example, if I put the plane in a yaw using the rudder pedals, the autopilot will lower one wing noticeably to keep the plane flying in a straight line, and if turbulence knocks me off a heading, the AP will turn the plane to correct.

  • TRK (LO): VOR-tracking mode, which keeps the VOR CDI centered using a low-pass filter (that means that it reacts slowly, so that it’s not constantly zig-zagging when the VOR scallops, as they often do.

  • TRK (HI): localizer-tracking mode, which keeps the VOR CDI centred using more-aggressive corrections, as you’d want on an ILS or LOC approach, where it’s essential to stay right on the centreline.

The stabilization mode (ST) is virtually useless for me – I’ve enabled it only in my initial tests and in pre-flight checks. If I want to steer the plane using the autopilot, it makes much more sense to twirl the heading bug on heading indicator and have the AP follow it.

For enroute, I’ve tried both the heading mode (HD) and the VOR-tracking mode (TRK LO). The trouble with the VOR mode is that VOR needles scallop a lot back and forth, so even with the low-pass filter, the plane still gently weaves during flight. It’s nice because I can just set and forget until VOR passage — no heading corrections required — but especially in IMC, I found the heading mode much more effective. With gentle adjustments, I was able to keep the virtual CDI in my portable GPS perfectly centered, even in cloud and mild turbulence, sometimes going as long as 15 minutes without having to touch the heading bug.

I tried the localizer-tracking mode (TRK HI) for my localizer approach into Beverly. At 10 miles back, it didn’t seem to be doing a good job, sometimes allowing nearly a half deflection on the CDI, so I disengaged the AP before I got too low and flew the rest of the approach by hand (flying an approach in IMC isn’t a good time to troubleshoot). That might just have been an anomaly, though, and I didn’t test it inside the final-approach fix (FAF), when signal might be better — I’ll do a test flight on the ILS approaches in Ottawa in visual conditions to see how it performs there.

I’m learning to deal better with the lack of altitude hold. On my first couple of flights, I was trying not to touch the yoke when it was in HD mode, and instead to correct altitude deviations using the trim. Even though I worked hard to damp out oscillations (anticipating them by trimming before the pitch reversed direction), it was still a challenge in turbulence.

On my Boston flight in IMC, I took a different approach, and tried sharing the yoke with the AP: I pulled or pushed it to control pitch and then trimmed to relieve pressure (the way I normally would), but managed to get used to letting the AP still turn the yoke while I was holding it. I was able to trim more effectively that way, and didn’t have to correct as often, even in turbulence.

The big conclusion, though, is that the AP made a huge difference in fatigue. I can (and have) hand-flown harder and longer flights in instrument conditions, but I’m very tired after I land from the constant second-to-second attention required for the scan and other IFR tasks. The autopilot let me relax a little bit, study the approach plates more carefully, pay more attention to the engine gauges (which can slip out of an IFR scan, when keeping the plane upright is the main concern), and just generally relax, while still keeping an active (but less frenetic) scan.

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