Monday, December 15, 2014

The Busted Pilots of Instagram

By now I'm sure many of you have seen "The Pilots of Instagram" piece that's been going around the interwebs. I'm choosing not to post a link because the author printed the names and airlines of the pilots involved, even in cases where it's pretty clear that safety was not compromised and not even certain that regulations were violated. Even if the pilots did mess up, viral press like this has the potential to ruin careers where more measured discipline might be more appropriate. You can find the article easily enough if you want to.

That said, the piece was surprisingly accurate and nuanced for a general news source (if that's what you call it; I'd never heard of Quartz before this). The author had a solid grasp on the particulars of the new FAR 121.542 regulation and how it interfaces with the more established sterile cockpit rule. I dare say the author has much better knowledge of the legalities of in-flight photo-taking than most airline pilots do. I wrote about the new regulations back in June, when I learned about them several months after they took effect. Since then most airline pilots to whom I've mentioned the new 121.542 were either unaware it existed or had an inaccurate idea of its provisions (erroneously thinking that only laptops were banned, that phones are ok in airplane mode, etc). Most airlines, it seems, did little to educate their pilots about the new law.

In some cases, such as my airline, many personal electronic devices were already prohibited by the Flight Operations Manual (FOM). Though it contains airline policy, the FOM is approved by the FAA and technically has the full force of the FARs (and even supersedes them, where there is conflicting guidance). Despite this, it is my experience that pilots tend to be less heedful of FOM rules than the FARs, and in many cases the FOM has considerable grey areas open to interpretation, whereas the FAA's stance on most major regs is well known. Here's a good example. In my June post, I wrote that my airline's FOM already prohibited any camera with electronic functions, which would rule out nearly every modern example. Later, a check airman pointed out that my interpretation hinged on the meaning of a single word, and that based on the use of that word elsewhere in the FOM and the FARs, this provision would not appear to prohibit cameras that were otherwise permitted by FAR 121.542 (that is, cameras with no wireless capability). So my new understanding is that in a non-sterile phase of flight, I can take a photo with my Nikon D5000 SLR, as it has no capability that would render it a "personal wireless communications device." I could then, after the flight is over, insert the SD card into my laptop and upload the photo to Instagram, or Facebook, or use it for one of my Flying articles, all without being in technical violation of the regulation.

There's another loophole mentioned in my previous piece that very well may have been at play with some of the photos and videos referenced in this article. The FAA specifically said in the final ruling that 121.542 does not apply to jumpseaters. When I see a photo or a video that appears to be taken from near aircraft centerline rather than the left or right side of the cockpit, I tend to suspect it was taken by a jumpseater. For that matter, what of a first-generation GoPro with no wireless capability that is set up on a suction mount in non-sterile flight and then allowed to run through landing and all the way to the gate? Depending on the provisions of that airline's FOM, I can see one arguing that this meets the letter of the regs. In most cases, it's very difficult to tell just from the photo or video whether it was taken legally. Even in seemingly egregious case, such as a photo on short final, it can be difficult to tell whether safety was compromised. What if it was a still from a video shot by the aforementioned mounted camera? If mounted out of the way, I find it hard to accept that any lives put in danger.

Here's the thing though. It's one thing to take a photo or video in the privacy of your own cockpit under circumstances that are arguably safe and legal. It is another thing to put that photo or footage, with identifying information, on a website that allows anyone to view it (or in the case of Instagram, encourages maximizing public views). I myself have had to become a lot more careful about this over the years. I once took a picture at PHL while parked on a taxiway with engines shut down on an extended ground hold, and later posted it to this blog. The FOM of the airline I was with at the time made clear this was a non-sterile period, and allowed us to open the cockpit door under these circumstances. I was immediately lambasted by a commenter for violating sterile cockpit, and why not? I certainly couldn't prove that we weren't in a sterile phase of ground operations. Likewise, the outed pilots of Instagram that posted landing footage taken from aircraft centerline can't prove that a jumpseater was holding that camera. When it comes to the court of public opinion, the concept of innocent until proven guilty definitely does not apply; nor does it hold much weight when facing company discipline.

Honestly, I really dislike that my job has come to this, that recording the neat things that I do and see on a daily basis and sharing them with my friends would put my livelihood at risk. It is what it is; going against the grain and posting this stuff online is almost inevitably going to end up with someone trying to destroy you. I'll certainly continue to share inflight pics and vids with you, my friends...but they're generally going to be taken from a single-engine airplane flying under FAR 91. For the past few years that's been my flying club Cub. As of today, however, you're going to start seeing another pretty yellow airplane cropping up in my multimedia offerings. More on that in my next post!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Sixteen Again

At my new airline, as at Horizon, many of the captains I am flying with are my parents' age or a little younger. Most of these have adult children and part of the standard "getting to know you chit-chat" is inquiring how many kids they have, what they do for work, what their marital status is, and whether any grandkids are on the way. Most of these children's lives were spent while their father (or mother) worked at a major airline. Which is to say: most had an upper-middle-class upbringing, often involving private schools and world travel and the chance to attend a good university. They tend to fall in either the brilliant-and-going-places category or else good-for-nothing-and-probably-moving-home, at least in their parent's retelling. What I not yet heard is even a single example of a child who is now an airline pilot. This makes sense, in a way. Most captains in this age bracket have offspring that came of age around or just after 9/11, when the airlines were in full economic free-fall and pilot group after pilot group was facing bankruptcy or liquidation. Nobody in this situation would encourage their kids to follow in their footsteps. Many have said as much.

Lately, though, I've also flown with quite a few newer captains who've been with the airline for "only" 14 or 15 years. These pilots suffered the effects of 9/11 much more acutely than their senior brethren; many spent months or years on furlough, and they've stagnated in the right seat since. However, their kids were young at the time and are just now getting to the age where they have to pick a career field. Surprisingly, I've flown with three or four younger captains whose kids are actively pursing being an airline pilot. They're either taking flight lessons, are planning to, or are a Private Pilot already, and are selecting an aviation college for their advanced training. All have their parents' enthusiastic support despite the formidable costs involved. Some of this is probably attributable to the upbeat attitude around my airline at the moment. There's a lot of hiring and upgrading going on, the company is making a lot of money, the profit-sharing checks are handsome, and the pilot contract has been slowly inching up towards pre-9/11 levels. My friends at other major airlines report that morale there is considerably worse, understandable since they're all still working through the merger glitches that my airline had to deal with five years ago.

It's made me wonder what I would do if I was sixteen again and looking for a career to pursue, knowing what I know now. When I was sixteen in 1997, the major airline bankruptcies and furloughs were starting to fade from memory, profits and hiring were on the upswing, and Kit Darby was declaring that the biggest pilot shortage in history was right around the corner. I loved flying and thought I was good at it. The idea of flying heavy iron across the world fascinated me. Flight training was a lot of money even then, but I figured the eventual payoff justified it. Had I been able to predict 9/11 and its fallout, had I known that payrates would be gutted and retirements stolen and huge swaths of the domestic networks outsourced to lowest-bidding regional airlines and flown for inferior pay with zero job stability, I'm not sure my decision would have been the same. Had I foreseen it would take 15 years of hard work and low pay and cross-country moves and occasionally dangerous flying to get to the majors, I might not have taken the leap. If my gift of prophecy had included insight into the runaway executive pay in this country coupled with the continuous shrinking of the middle class, I might have gone to business school.

It's probably good I didn't know the future, because I've enjoyed life and flying over the last fifteen years despite the career bumps along the way, and I seem to have arrived at the majors at a good time. But what would I tell a sixteen-year-old version of myself starting out right now? That consolidation has ensured continued profitability and stability at the remaining major carriers for years to come? That the mandatory retirement numbers are incontrovertible and the pilot shortage is real this time? That the upheaval in the regional sector will have played itself out by the time he's qualified and he can expect a more defined, secure career path? Or would I say that the inexorable march of automation has ensured the continual decline of the airline pilot's worth, or that the capacity discipline exhibited by the major airlines of late will attract new entrants and fresh upheaval, or that cabotage is inevitable and the US airline industry will go the way of the US maritime industry? Hell, for all I know airliners could be pilotless in 30 years. By the same token medicine could be automated by then, tort reform may put thousands of lawyers out of work, or the revolution could come and MBAs will swing from every lamppost. I don't know what's going to happen.

I do know this: Aviation has been an unstable, irrational industry since the day Wilbur cracked up on Flight Four and will likely continue to be thus for a long time to come, consolidation be damned. Even in the salad days airline pilots were known to bitch about pay and working conditions, and will continue to do so until they're finally replaced by robots. Very few pilots will have smooth careers from beginning to end. Most of those getting into aviation for money, lifestyle, prestige, or excitement will find one or all of those things lacking at some point in their career, and it may be enough to kill whatever love of flying they had in the first place. For those who love to fly, though, and can't imagine doing else, the joy of flight transcends what's going on in the industry at any given moment. If you are that sort of person, and you can be happy despite low income, birthdays and holidays spent away from family, and uncertainty about the future, you are probably well-suited for a career in aviation. The good news is that at some point along the way, there's a good chance that you'll happen into a sweet well-paid gig that affords a decent lifestyle. As long as those things are considered side benefits, and the flying is the main goal, it's still a pretty decent way to make a living. Of course, if you're an airplane-mad sixteen-year-old like I was, you probably don't need some old codger to tell you that.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Kick It Out?

The following video has been making the rounds on the interwebs, showing a landing on runway 27L at Chicago O'Hare on a windy day last week:

I initially thought the plane was an AA 737, but closer inspection shows it to be a JungleBus operated for AA by Republic Airways. I have about 5000 hours in the airplane and have made my share of crosswind landings up to and including the published demonstrated crosswind limit of 38 knots (one of which was on 27L at ORD, actually). At NewCo this was considered a hard limit inclusive of gusts, and our FAA principal inspector later lowered our limit to 28 knots steady with gusts to 38. The airplane handled crosswinds very well, with more than enough rudder authority even at 38 knots crosswind component, and enough nacelle and wingtip clearance to use proper wing-low crosswind technique. In big wind, you'd start to kick out the crab and establish the aileron input just before beginning the flare, at about 50 feet.

The technique shown in the video has been criticized by some pilots, and it's definitely not ideal (especially considering the crosswind component was only 15-20 knots), but I don't think the landing was nearly as hairy as the video shows. This was shot from a long ways off using a very high-zoom lens, which greatly exaggerates angular differences (note that 27L looks about 4000' long and 400' wide!). I would guess they landed with somewhere around 5-10 degrees of crab - again, not ideal, but likely within design limits for JungleBus' robust landing gear. Looking at the video, it appears that the pilot attempted to kick out the crab late in the landing flare and didn't put in a corresponding aileron input, which rolled the plane a bit left, where the wind caught the upwind wing, so they touched down on the downwind gear while still crabbed.

I think most airlines would prefer the occasional sideloaded landing to a wingtip or nacelle strike, and for this reason many actually teach a wings-level crosswind technique. The idea is to wait until late in the flare and then kick out as much crab as possible just before touchdown; if you time it right, the plane will be aligned with centerline but on the ground before any side drift develops. You still use some upwind aileron, but only enough to hold wings level. This is a commonly taught technique on the 747 and 737 due to low nacelle clearance, on Airbus products due to the flight control software making cross-controlling difficult, and on the CRJ-200 and JungleBus' little brother JungleJet due to low wingtip clearance. I do not know whether Republic teaches the "kick it out" method on the JungleBus or the JungleJets operated by sister company Chautauqua.

In the JungleBus you have 16 degrees of bank before striking a wingtip or a nacelle. The former requires an unusually high pitch and the latter a nose-low attitude. When landing in 38 knots of crosswind, the most bank I ever saw was about 6-7 degrees. You're typically using Flaps 5 with a lot of wind additive, so you're looking at approach speeds of 140-160 knots depending on weight. There's no reason to use the "kick it out" method; the plane sideslips and lands beautifully on the upwind main wheel with perhaps 3/4 rudder deflection and 1/3 aileron deflection on touchdown, and increasing the aileron deflection throughout the landing roll greatly aids in keeping the plane tracking down centerline. It's not very different to how I land the Cub.

The Mad Dog absolutely hates being landed with any crab at all; doing so nearly always results in a nasty bounce and dramatic gyrations as the tires skip across the runway. For this reason my airline teaches a very similar wing-low technique to the one I used in JungleBus, with cross-control inputs made somewhat lower but still fairly early in the landing flare. There is less wingtip clearance on the Mad Dog than JungleBus, and the ailerons are far less effective (they're manually controlled via cables to servo tabs); the control wheel is close to full deflection on touchdown at the crosswind limit of 30 knots. I know this because a few days before the above video, I landed in Atlanta with winds 310 at 38 knots (twice in one day, actually).

It's easy to pile on the pilots in the video above, but I can say that over the course of thousands of landings I've made some real doozies and was just fortunate that no cameras were rolling. The same goes for any professional pilot flying. The pilot may have well been planning on using a wing-low technique but got a last minute sinker and he was just trying to save it from a hard touchdown. The last few seconds before landing get really busy when the winds are howling, and not just because of the crosswind - it's because your airspeed is often bouncing around +/- 10 knots, and you're making fairly dramatic pitch & power changes in response to floaters and sinkers. At the end of the day, this guy landed on centerline, in the touchdown zone, at what looked like a fairly low sink rate, and the plane appeared to handle the sideload fairly well. This was one of the first windy days since last spring, everyone's knocking the rust off, and no doubt we'll all refine our technique considerably as winter approaches.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Almost Home

Besides the better pay, work rules, and benefits, one of the reasons that so many young pilots aspire to fly for one of the remaining legacy network airlines is the variety of flying available to its pilots over the course of their careers. The "Big Three" have large networks covering the US, North America, and the entire world, with a large number of different aircraft types of various sizes, capabilities, makes, and levels of automation. Once the new American Airlines is fully integrated, for example, a newhire may find themselves flying an old-school MD83, a Boeing 737, an Airbus 320/319/321, or an Embraer 190. Moving up, they might fly internationally in a Boeing 757/767, A330, 777, or 787 - or they might stay on domestic narrowbody equipment for better seniority. They might delay upgrade for a better schedule, or they might chase the highest-paying left-seat position available. They might give up a pay raise to hold a base they live in or which features an easier commute. The options are many, and few pilots will make the exact same choices over the course of their career.

Personally I enjoy variety in my flying, which is one of the main things that made me wait out a class date at a legacy carrier rather than trying to get hired at an airline like jetBlue, Southwest, or Alaska. Those are fine companies that treat their pilots well, but they are also (for now) single-fleet operators with narrowbody equipment confined to North America. That's what I'm doing now and that's just fine for a few years, but I can't see doing it my entire career. My current airline has even greater fleet variety than American. Assuming that both my health and the state of the economy and my employer stays strong, I'll hopefully bid to widebody international equipment in a few years, do that until I upgrade on the Mad Dog or similar domestic narrowbody, and eventually go back to international in the left seat. Changing it up will help keep the flying from getting stale over the next 32 years to mandatory retirement (I hope to retire sooner...said every 33-year old pilot ever).

For now I'm just hoping to get home to Minneapolis as soon as possible. There is a Mad Dog base there and it's not really that senior, but there is a huge glut of newhires who happen to be from the Twin Cities who are trying to get home. Among the 2010 hires, I have a several friends who have been trying to get back ever since; they've been commuting to reserve in New York for much of the last four years. Considering this, I was thinking it would be a year or better before I could hold Minneapolis, but nevertheless kept it active in my online vacancy bid. Imagine my surprise when, several months ago, a vacancy award was published that had my name and "MSP Mad Dog FO" on it! Some 19 pilots senior to me and 8 junior to me got back to MSP in the same bid. I talked to a chief pilot shortly afterwards, and he showed me slated for a December 1st "conversion date." I was a bit doubtful; letting 20+ pilots go all at once would decimate the New York base. But as time went on and the December 1st date held firm, I allowed myself a glimmer of hope.

The December category lists were just published - and disappointingly, I'm still in New York, along with most of the senior pilots awarded MSP. The contract gives the company wide discretion on when they chose to convert vacancy awards, and they apparently realized that short-staffing New York immediately before the holidays and the return of winter weather was not in their best interests. That's ok. I know plenty of people forced to commute their entire careers. I'll likely commute again at some point in mine. For now, it's good to know that I'm coming home, and I only have to wait a few more months. For December, I'll be over 50% seniority in the New York Mad Dog base, raising the possibility of holding Christmas off in my very first year. I got Thanksgiving off in November. Minneapolis, like widebody international flying, will be there for me down the road. In the meantime I'm enjoying much better seniority than a probationary pilot would usually dare to hope for.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Out of Touch

I just got back from 10 days of sailing in the British Virgin Islands, attending the 33rd Annual Interline Regatta. It's my third year at the regatta, and was a blast as usual. It had an interesting beginning in that I and several teammates just barely beat Hurricane Gonzalo to the islands, flying to St Thomas on Oct 13th on one of the last flights and then catching the second-to-last ferry between St Thomas and Tortola. We rode out the storm on our charter boats in The Moorings' well-protected base in Road Town, and there it was actually a non-event with a bit of wind and very little rain. It turns out that although the hurricane rapidly intensified to Category II+ on Monday night, it also veered about 60 miles north of its predicted track, and so the BVI were spared though islands further east suffered damage. In St Martin, 37 boats were destroyed at anchor and one mariner aboard was killed.

The last rain bands passed by Tuesday afternoon, and after that it was beautiful weather for the remainder of the regatta, though unusual northwesterly winds prevailed in the storm's wake and faded to light air for the first few days of racing before the southeasterly trades resumed. Our group had three charter boats this year, and I alternated skippering a 41' Beneteau and our 50' Beneteau race boat. This is the third yacht charter I've skippered this year, my sixth sailing excursion since last September totaling some 43 days spent afloat. I'm getting more comfortable with big-boat handling as I gain experience, and have been able to get some of my closest friends and family members hooked on it too. For me, the real attraction of the Interline Regatta is not just the beautiful tropical surroundings or excellent sailing, it is the chance to spend ten days enjoying the company of some of my favorite people in the world, free of the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

It was time exceptionally free of outside distractions this year as my phone steadfastedly refused to connect to BVI voice and data networks, and most wifi connections proved similarly unusable. I'm not sure if it was post-hurricane network snafus or a problem with my phone. I've never had those issues in the BVI before. It didn't bother me much, except that Dawn stayed home this year and our only contact was nightly text messages and one phone call when within range of USVI cell towers on St John. I was also out of contact with Flying's editorial office during a critical stage of the publishing process, which resulted in my December column going to the printer before I had a chance to offer input on proposed changes. My editors will attest that I'm an obsessive perfectionist where the column is concerned - much more than I ever have been with the blog - and so while nobody will ever notice the difference but me, it was a bit frustrating. Lastly, the Yellow Cub Club's president was unsuccessfully trying to get ahold of me. I'll write more about this soon, but we recently sold Cub N77532 as it needed a restoration and few club members were willing to be without a plane to fly for a year or more. We bought a nice 1940 J-3C that was restored in the late 90s with the proceeds, but the club needed someone to fly it back from CVG. I had volunteered, but October proved to be a very bad month considering nearly all my off time was devoted to the regatta. Oh well; another club member is bringing it back in the next few days.

Since coming back from my ten days spent out of touch in the BVI, I've been unusually aware of how many people I see with their faces stuck to their smartphones, oblivious to the people around them. It's the world we live in and it's completely useless to go off on a screed about it. But maybe, just maybe, I'll make the extra effort to leave the phone in my pocket the next few weeks and engage with the real live persons around me. The electronic contacts will be there when I get back to them. But you never know when a potential life-long friend is sitting three feet away from you, just waiting to connect over a shared passion for sailing, motorcycles, travel, or flying.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

A Trip to Catalina

Back in August I chartered a Beneteau 43-foot sailboat for five days out of Marina del Rey in Los Angeles with Dawn, my little brother Steve, and friends Lance, Ivy, Kelly, and Rob. We did a 4-day trip to Catalina Island, and then Steve and I spent an additional night anchored up at Paradise Cove near Malibu. We enjoyed beautiful weather and phenomenal sailing conditions, and I was able to get the entire crew training & practice time at each of the crew positions. It was actually my second time taking this boat to Catalina, as "Liberty" was the boat used for my ASA104 Bareboat Chartering course last September. Here's the really cool part: the charter company / sailing school, Blue Pacific Boating, hired Steve to make a promotional video from our trip. Steve is a multi-talented guy, and he did a really nice job with it (including enlisting our brother-in-law Jordan to write & record the music). I don't know about you, but it makes me want to head for the nearest body of water and jump on a sailboat! Watch it full-screen in 1080p.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Carbon Envy

I have only flown a handful of taildraggers in my life: the Piper PA16 Clipper, Aeronca Champ, and Bellanca Super Decathlon before I had my tailwheel endorsement, and the Cessna 170B and my club's current 1946 Piper Cub since. I look at Luscombes, Piper Pacers, and Stinson 108s on all the time, but I have yet to fly any of these. I just haven't put the necessary legwork and gumption into making contacts and scoring rides, I guess. Compare this to "Weasel," otherwise known as Eric Whyte, chairman of the AirVenture Cup race that I recently participated in. He's only a little older than me and has flown 105 aircraft types, many of them rare classics and warbirds. You can guess how he got his nickname!

I'm interested by the many variant aircraft that the Cub eventually spawned, from the Cub Special to the Super Cub to the Aviat Husky, but I have not flown any of them - until now. I recently had the opportunity to fly a brand new CubCrafters Carbon Cub SS, the newest and perhaps most impressive descendent of my humble J-3. Because I have no experience with the intervening and more equivalent aircraft, I can only compare the Carbon Cub with my own well-used 68-year-old club airplane, which inevitably pales in comparison. The Carbon Cub's empty weight is only 100 lbs heavier than the J-3, with 180 horsepower available vs. 75! But more about that in a minute.

I'll admit that I used my newfound "aviation journalist" status and accompanying press badge to score this little junket at Oshkosh. I did so on the advice of Jeff Skiles (most well known as the FO on US1549, but more recently a part of EAA leadership and a writer for Sport Aviation). Dawn and I hung out with Jeff for an hour at Oshkosh and afterwards sat in on an interview with CubCrafters' General Manager, Randy Lervold. Afterward Jeff arranged a flight for that evening and suggested I go up as well. "Being an aviation writer is all about collecting new experiences," he noted. "Airline flying and early career stories will only take you so far." Touché. Lervold immediately granted my request, though it was obvious I didn't have a Carbon Cub story in the works.

So on Monday evening, Dawn and I rode her motorbike to Hickory Oaks, a 2200' grass strip a few miles north of town that seemed to be in an entirely different universe than the bustling convention grounds. Five brand new Carbon Cubs sat prettily on the freshly mowed grass, looking perfectly at place as potential customers and sales reps milled about. The CC appears nearly identical to a Super Cub, as intended, but its underlying structure is in fact almost entirely different. It shares very little commonality with CubCrafters' Super Cub-derived Top Cub design. This is how it saves so much weight over the 80-year-old Cub airframe: a modern computer-aided design that eliminates unnecessary structure. For sure, there's some use of space age materials (cowling and spinner use the eponymous carbon fiber, for example) but it's still mostly a tube and fabric design. There's just a lot less tube than the Super Cub. Time will tell whether it makes a difference in durability. The Super Cub is so popular in places like the Alaska bush precisely because it's so over-engineered.

Lervold rightly points out that serious bush flying is not really what the Carbon Cub was intended for; that's the Top Cub's balliwick. The Carbon Cub was made for the recreational Light Sport market; the target audience is older, affluent, and downsizing into something fun that reminds them of the taildraggers of their youth while offering decent comfort and excellent performance. It certainly has that in spades; it is without question the best-performing LSA out there and arguably the most "airplane-like." This has stirred up considerable controversy in the LSA world. Like all LSAs, the Carbon Cub did not go through the rigorous Part 23 certification process; it was designed to meet less rigid ASTM standards. In order to qualify as an LSA, though, it was limited to a maximum gross weight of 1320 lbs and a max top speed of 120 knots. The airplane is clearly very capable of hauling much more and going considerably faster, and the Carbon Cub's critics argue that CubCrafters is promoting the airplane's performance with a wink and a nod regarding the certified limits.

They may have a point. As Lervold and Skiles climbed into the airplane for the first demo ride, I couldn't help but wonder whether an enterprising FAA inspector conducting ramp checks at this small grass strip would find the aircraft to be loaded within legal limits. In fact both Lervold and Skiles are relatively svelte men and the airplane had partial fuel, so I'm guessing the 424 lb useful load was observed on this occasion. I can't imagine many owners would be so fastidious. But is having the performance to exceed a limitation really a flaw? Most airplanes have a fair bit of margin built into their maximum gross weight. Pilots speak with admiration of designs that will "haul anything you can stuff in 'em." Conversely, underpowered designs seldom win fans, which is one reason most LSAs have not sold as well as the CarbonCub. I certainly enjoy a good extra bit of oomph even at sea level with a long runway, much less on the short, tree-hemmed, high-altitude strip that every potential Carbon Cub customer imagines themselves taking the airplane to. The old Cub has some very attractive qualities, but sprightly performance is not one of them. You fly it on the wing, not on the engine. It's worth noting that our club's J3 has almost the exact same legal useful load as the CarbonCub, and is also likely flown over max gross weight at times, but with a far more negative impact on safety margins.

Just from watching Skiles' takeoffs and landings it was clear I was in for a treat. When they returned, I took his place in the front seat, which felt fairly familiar as I usually fly the J3 from the front seat with Dawn aboard (it must be soloed from the rear). The instrument panel is roughly the same size as the J3 but packs in far more information using an interesting design. The airspeed and altimeter are conventional steam gauges; the digital tachometer, comm radio, and transponder are contained within similar compact round dials. Mixture, primer, light switches, and "magnetos" (actually dual electronic ignition) are squeezed around the edges of the panel. But in the middle is a large empty rectangle for mounting an iPad running Wing-X Pro, Foreflight, or similar software. Just about everyone I know (other than myself) uses an iPad for light plane flying these days, and the middle of the panel is a far better mounting spot than most setups I've seen. It's strictly VFR, of course, but it worked great.

The Carbon Cub on conventional tires has better over-the-nose visibility than the J-3, but this demonstrator was on 26" tundra tires, giving it a very familiar attitude and the necessity to S-turn to the runway from either seat. For my first takeoff, Lervold had me use 10 degrees of flaps (the J-3 has none) and an otherwise conventional takeoff technique of stick slightly forward to bring up the tail and then very light back pressure to fly. It happened about as quickly as you read that, maybe 5 or 6 seconds, during half of which I was still getting the throttle fully open! After liftoff I pulled up, and up, and up to a fairly nutty deck angle to achieve the Vy speed of 71 mph. The plane didn't have a rate of climb indicator, but I'd guesstimate it around 2000 fpm - remember, this is at max legal gross weight.

We flew a few miles northwest where Lervold invited me to explore the slow flight regime. The Carbon Cub maneuvered beautifully at partial flaps & 50 mph, including steep turns up to 45 degrees bank. At 35 mph I could still turn it without much complaint other than the occasional chirp of stall warning. Leveling the wings, I cut the power and did my best to get it to break into a stall. It finally did so, but the airspeed indicator was buried at the lower limit of 20 mph. I doubt that was actually accurate, but the VGs do keep the wing flying incredibly slowly. When the plane did break, it started to drop a wing but was easily righted with the powerful rudder. That was actually the biggest adjustment coming from the J-3; the rudder is considerably more sensitive. Other than that, the control feel was quite familiar, albeit with none of the stiffness or slop that comes from 68-year-old bellcranks, stretched control cables, and an out of square airframe. 

Maneuvering complete, we dropped down to Lake Butte des Morts and loafed along at partial flaps and 70 mph checking out the lake shore homes and boats - exactly the sort of sunset patrol that I take the J-3 on all the time, really the one mission at which the Cub thoroughly excels. It was quieter and more comfortable in the Carbon Cub, and I really enjoyed it, but I can't say I would have enjoyed it any less in the J-3. Landings on the other hand...whew, what a rush. Hickory Creek isn't really a STOL strip, not by Cub standards, but we treated it like one, turning base-to-final low between a strand of trees and a gravel heap that made the 45 mph approach speed seem a lot faster than it was. I nursed it over the boundary fence and chopped the last bit of power, brought the nose up to the attitude I use to three-point the J-3, put the stick in my lap as we touched down softly with nary a bounce, and very quickly rolled to a stop. Nice! Either it was beginner's luck or those tundra tires really soften out landings! We didn't bother back-taxiing for the next takeoff. Lervold had me use maximum performance technique: 20 degrees of flaps and stick back a half-inch, full throttle, and let the airplane levitate off the ground from a three-point attitude. CubCrafters claims a ground roll of 60 feet. That sounds about right, it was incredibly quick.

For the encore I did a wheel landing, this time being less aggressive about getting the airplane down and barely touching the brakes after another smooth touchdown; we still only used about 600 feet of runway. We taxiied back to the other Carbon Cubs, which had finished their own demo rides, and shut down the engine. Lervold complimented my flying (like any good demo pilot!) and remarked that I could put .5 hours of CC11-160 PIC time in the logbook. Dawn and I hung around for a while chatting with Lervold, Skiles, and the CubCrafters sales reps while munching on burgers, quaffing cold beer, and eyeing the pretty taildraggers sitting quietly in the grass.

A few days later I was headed home from Oshkosh in my underpowered, beat up flying club Cub, watching pickup trucks pass me on dusty country roads as I strained against a 20 knot headwind at 500' AGL. No iPad or GPS in this plane; my finger followed our route on an open sectional and I peered into the haze for a 300 foot tower that the chart said was somewhere out there. Afternoon thermals tussled the wings and sixty-eight years of oil and dope and sweat swirled about the cockpit. I opened the window and was instantly rewarded with a warm blast of freshly cut hay. I don't mind saying that I didn't miss the Carbon Cub just then. Don't get me wrong; it's a fantastic airplane, I enjoyed flying it, and if I ever strike it rich and have $200k(!) to spare on a fun new airplane, it will be on my short list. But though it's distantly derived from the Cub and looks similar to the Cub, they're really entirely different airplanes. The Carbon Cub is built to safely take you to adventurous and challenging places through modern engineering and superior performance. The J-3, on the other hand, turns entirely routine flights into grand adventures through its very inadequacies and anachronisms. Maybe someday there will come a time when a Carbon Cub makes sense for me. Till then, I'll be perfectly happy to just weasel the occasional ride!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Airfield That Time Forgot

In case you missed it, my July "Taking Wing" column recounted a Cub flight to one of my favorite airports around, Stanton Field. It's now available for free on Flying Magazine's website:

Taking Wing: The Airfield That Time Forgot

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Oshkosh '14

This year was my fifth time flying to "The Show." I brought in a Cessna 172 (N738FZ) in 1999 and 2010, and a Cessna 170A in 2011 and 2012. So I'm quite familiar with the VFR arrival procedure and have landed on several different runways (including the infamous tight left base to 18R that got Jack Roush). That said, flying a Cub in presents its own challenges, namely that it's far slower than nearly everything else coming to Oshkosh; its maximum cruising speed is actually below the stall speed of several single-engine homebuilt designs. The Fisk arrival procedure calls for inbound aircraft to maintain 90 knots and 1800' MSL over the railroad tracks from Ripon to Fisk, or 135 knots and 2300' if they can't go that slow. It says nothing about what to do if you can't go that fast! So that poor little Continental 75 had probably never been thrashed as hard as I pushed it for the last 15 minutes inbound to Oshkosh, it was redlined the whole way. I possibly even made it up to 85 mph.

Surprisingly, nobody passed me - until just before Fisk, when a C-185 snuck around me to the right. We were actually within sight of the controller, who asked if we were a flight of two. "Affirmative," answered the Cessna as he sped off ahead of me. Jerk. I had to clarify that the Cub was not part of a flight, and the understanding controller gave me my own clearance to fly east down Fisk Avenue as fast as I could for 36L. Off I went. Once I was with tower, they cleared me to land on the yellow dot (midfield) and asked me to go direct to the dot, a slight dogleg. A Piper Cherokee behind me was told to slow to final approach speed, square his base, and land on the numbers. I stayed redlined at 90 mph all the way down final, knowing that the Cub's massive drag would slow me to landing speed within seconds of pulling the throttle to idle. Still, the Cherokee apparently made up a lot of ground on me and then floated his landing, because an anxious-sounding supervisor broke in on tower frequency as I was just about to touch down on my dot: "Keep it in the air, Yellow Cub, keep it in the air! Cherokee, I need to you put it down!" No problem, I had a good 3000 feet of runway left and only needed 300 to get the Cub stopped. Several seconds passed and I was wondering if tower had forgotten about the Cub flying down the runway when he said "OK Yellow Cub, this just isn't going to work, go around, immediate right turn, enter right traffic for 36R." Must have been quite the floater for that Cherokee.

The go-around and subsequent landing on the narrow east taxiway (temporarily repurposed as Runway 36R) was uneventful. I fast-taxied with the tail up to a midfield crossing of 36L, and from there it was a straight shot to race plane parking at smack-dab show center. I tied down the Cub, gathered my camping equipment, and was halfway to Camp Scholler when the skies let loose with a mighty deluge accompanied by an impressive albeit short-lived lightning display. Glad I didn't arrive 20 minutes later! It was actually a fairly active weather day in Wisconsin and I was lucky to not encounter much of it on the race course, in Wausau, or on my way into Oshkosh. Dawn got lucky too: she was riding her Yamaha FZ6 motorbike from Minneapolis and stayed dry the whole way.

This was a rather different Oshkosh experience for us. We didn't walk nearly as much as usual, and we didn't even attempt to see everything. We spent a lot of our time meeting up and hanging out with friends, and otherwise just relaxing, admiring homebuilt and vintage airplanes, and chatting people up. Unlike my four previous conventions, we didn't camp under the wing - it wasn't allowed in the race plane corral, and I wasn't about to give up the novelty of parking the race-numbered Cub alongside sleek Lancairs, Glasairs, and SX300s. Fortunately, we got to pitch our tent in one of the best and most convenient campsites in Camp Scholler: in the second row of Paul's Woods, just behind the exhibit hangars, with a fun bunch of AirVenture Cup and EAA volunteers. Unlike showplane camping, which is usually pretty quiet by 9pm, the beer & campfire stories flowed well past midnight. We had more freedom than usual thanks to Dawn's motorcycle; it was actually my first time venturing far off the airport into Oshkosh proper. For the first time, we caught a night airshow, which Dawn loved. That and the "One Week Wonder" Zenith CH750 project were her favorite aspects this year, and we were both among the 2500 attendees who pulled a few rivets and signed our names on the plane that flew less than a week later.

This was my first time at Oshkosh since I began writing for Flying, which made for a few memorable experiences. I had several people walk up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed my writing - a few were even readers of this blog. That was really neat. Though Flying didn't have a tent this year (there was a mix-up and/or politics involved, depending on who you asked), I was able to meet Robert Goyer and several other editors/writers for the first time. Dawn and I were invited to Flying's big party at The Waters on Tuesday night, which was pretty fun. And lastly, shortly before the show I got an email from Jeff Skiles - yes, that Jeff Skiles - saying he liked my writing & asking if we could meet up. Wow! Jeff is currently EAA's Vice President of Chapters & Youth Education. He and Dawn and I spent an hour on Monday morning tooling around the convention grounds in "Teal 1," one of EAA's vintage VW Beetle convertibles, chatting and stopping to check out airplanes that caught our eye. Really nice, cool guy. At hour's end he invited me to sit in on an interview with CubCrafters' General Manager, Randy Lervold. After the interview Jeff made plans to fly the CarbonCub that night at a grass strip north of Oshkosh and urged me to fly it too; the CubCrafters people graciously obliged my request. That was fun and cool enough to merit its own future post, so that's all I'll say about that for now. But it's something I likely never would have done if not for the Flying column.

I will say that there was something in the air this year that has been missing the previous several times I've been to Oshkosh: a palpable sense of optimism. Last time I went, 2012, was the year of "Occupy Oshkosh," when a large number of volunteers and members made their displeasure at EAA and AirVenture's direction loudly known at the membership meeting. That anger was gone this year. The flight line chalets are gone. Oshkosh is as commercialized as ever - witness the Thunderbirds performing for the weekend airshow - but EAA's new leadership under Jack Pelton has made big changes in their tone & actions towards members and volunteers, and the EAA Board of Directors seems to be newly invigorated in taking their oversight responsibility seriously. But I dare say the optimism went beyond EAA politics and reflected positive opinions about the state of the economy, the aviation industry, and prospects for the future of GA. A lot of people seem to feel that GA flying has rebounded quite a bit in the last year, which matches what I've been seeing at my local airport. It's supported by the attendance numbers at OSH this year, and by the number of vendors that reported having a good year there. Time will tell if the optimism is warranted, but it's a good start. Sometimes I feel that negativity about GA can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nobody wants to go hang out at the airport or fly somewhere if they think it's going to be dead.

Our time at Oshkosh ended on a sad note. I was planning to fly out Thursday morning, but my departure was delayed by a fatal crash of a Breezy. This was the 50th anniversary of the Breezy design, and 13 of them were at OSH, an all-time record. The Breezy has a special connection to OSH because over the years Carl Unger and Arnie Zimmerman gave so many kids and volunteers free rides in their Breezys. My little brother Josiah is among the thousands that got a ride around the patch in Carl's Breezy. Carl passed away a few years ago but his Breezy was there, as was Arnie's. It was Arnie's Breezy that crashed, with his friend Jim Oeffinger as the pilot. Jim didn't make it. His young passenger was an EAA volunteer named Jenn, and she was camping a few tents over from Dawn and I. Fortunately she survived and is well on her way to an expected full recovery. I certainly hope this doesn't mean the end of the Breezys giving rides at OSH, because I think they are a wonderful symbol of what EAA and Oshkosh is all about.

I really enjoyed this year's show, and between the race and the convention, I made a lot of new friends that I'm looking forward to seeing next year. I just might become one of those "can't miss a year" guys yet!

Saturday, September 06, 2014

The Hazards of Going On Autopilot

An interesting New Yorker article that mirrors a lot of what I've found to be true of cockpit automation over the years:

The Hazards Of Going On Autopilot - Maria Konnikova

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Racing The Cub

The 2014 AirVenture Cup Cross-Country Air Race officially began at 8:48am on Sunday, July 27th, but I wasn't in Mitchell to see the checkered flag drop. I had in fact already been airborne for nearly two hours and was diverting to Windom, MN for fuel, gusty 20 knot direct crosswind notwithstanding. In a nod to my Piper Cub's very limited speed and endurance, I had been allowed to start the race early, just after daybreak. The weather across the route wasn't great, but not horrible either. Most importantly, I wouldn't be facing any significant headwinds over the 370 nm course. For the first leg, I even had a good tailwind up high; I took the Cub to 7500 feet and saw 85 kts groundspeed in cruise! Mind you, that was with a nearly 30 degree crab to stay on course. I had high hopes of making St James but it was not to be. The occluded front that was producing so much wind also created an increasingly solid undercast 50 miles west of Mankato. Staying on top was not a wise choice in a very fuel-limited, non-gyro airplane, so I dropped to the deck, saw my groundspeed drop to 50 knots, got tossed around pretty good, and crabbed my way to Windom.

The 20 knot crosswind was sporting, to say the least. I'd previously landed the Cub in up to 15 kts and have been on board while the friend who sold me my share landed in 23 kts - but he's an expert taildragger CFI, & still nearly lost it if not for a well-timed jab at the downwind brake. I fortunately was able to keep the wing pinned down without resorting to such heroics, but turning around and taxiing downwind was tricky. And then when I shut down and hopped out to chock the wheels before the Cub blew away, I discovered that the airport's fuel tanks were literally gone, dug out of the ground. Whoops - missed that NOTAM. I had an hour of fuel left in the Cub, and I was an hour away from the official pit stop of Mankato. Fortunately, I had a five gallon gas can in the baggage compartment for this exact scenario. I put it all in the header tank, checked the weather in Mankato, threw the prop over, and was soon bouncing my way to the northeast.

I was nearly to Mankato when the other race planes caught up with me. I hadn't been monitoring race frequency; there's no electrical system in the Cub and the juice in the onboard motorcycle battery had to last me the rest of the day to Oshkosh. I turned on the radio just in time to hear "Passing on your right, Yellow Cub, stay straight ahead!" A few seconds later, a white Lancair came screaming by at an absolutely astonishing speed. It was like I wasn't even moving; seeing something that small go that fast was shocking and thrilling. I saw a few other racers go by as we converged on Mankato, but none so close.

The crosswind component to Mankato's wide Runway 33 was "only" 15 knots, making for a much less exciting arrival than Windom. And they had fuel! I added half a quart of oil to the Cub's aging A65, checked the weather, took off, and circled back across the airport for the turning point timekeeper to restart my time. I was in very familiar territory now, passing south of Airlake and almost directly over Stanton. Here on the east side of the front, the skies cleared and the wind eased; the ride smoothed out, the crab lessened, and my groundspeed crept back up to 70 knots. I had been planning on a short leg to Red Wing MN followed by one long final push to Wausau, an endurance-stretching 123 nm. There were a few private grass strips along the way to refuel via gas can, if need be. But when I checked the weather in Mankato, I noticed that the wind, which had backed to the west a bit, was forecast to swing north throughout the day and across the course. This seemed to match what I was seeing in the air. Why not make my northing now, land in Menomonie WI, and then run straight east for the last 95nm to Wausau? It was a little more distance but I was pretty sure it would be faster, very similar to playing a shift in sailboat racing.

I turned a bit left, crossed the Mississippi just north of Red Wing, and dodged a few scattered rain squalls on my way into Menomonie. I landed there just after 11am, refueled, grabbed a soda and some chips, texted Dawn, and checked the radar. A big cell was just moving across Wausau but would be gone by the time I arrived. I took off to the northeast, skirting around Eau Claire's Class D (which race rules prohibited penetrating, likely with Lancair speeds in mind) before turning straight east along Highway 29. An hour later, the Wisconsin River and Rib Mountain came into view, and then the Wausau Airport. I started a cruise descent from 3500', enjoying a last burst of speed. Rolling out over the river, I gave the old Cub everything she had and possibly even broke 100 mph in the last dive to the finish line! "Race 103....Mark! Congratulations!" crackled the voice on race frequency.

On landing I was surprised to find that many of the racers were still in Wausau, though they soon began to leave en masse for Oshkosh. I refueled the Cub (cheap mogas!) and enjoyed a picnic meal courtesy of EAA Chapter 640, then beat a hasty path out of town with the last two support planes as a large thunderstorm bore down on the airport. From there it was an enjoyable last hour to Ripon, and then the now-familiar Fisk arrival to Oshkosh. My arrival there was complicated by the fact that I was flying a plane that couldn't even nearly maintain the standard 90 knots - I'll write more about that next post. Suffice it to say I made it in safely without too much commotion, and was rewarded with one of the best parking spots in all of Oshkosh: smack dab in the middle of show center, right on the flightline. My little Cub, wings and fuselage marked with duct-tape "103" decals, looked oddly at home with all the sleek Lancairs, Glasairs, and RVs in the race corral. She had kept me safe and even fairly comfortable over 7 hours and 470 nm in a single day, my greatest Cub adventure thus far. Over the next week her yellow fabric-covered wings would provide shade for countless spectators at the daily airshows.

That night the racers and family & friends reconvened at Wendt's on the Lake for fried perch, cold beer, and the awards ceremony. It was fun hearing all the different stories from the day. Some very impressive race times were posted, above all that of "Screaming Yellow Zonker," a Lancair IV that finished the course in 1 hour 13 minutes at an average speed of 346 mph. On the opposite end of the field, I finished in 5 hours 24 minutes (excluding stops) for a rather respectable average speed of 78 mph. I actually won the Vintage class! Unfortunately, I was the only entrant in that class after a Taylorcraft (which would have smoked me) dropped out.

Racing the Cub in the AirVenture Cup was a very fun way to begin an enjoyable week at Oshkosh, one that was quite a bit different for me than previous years. I'll write about that next time.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Live from Mitchell, SD

As I wrote in my "Taking Wing" column in the August issue of Flying that hit newsstands this week, I'm flying into Oshkosh for the fifth time this year - the first time in my flying club Piper Cub. What I didn't say is that I was flying 220 nm in the wrong direction to Mitchell, South Dakota, and then racing one of the world's slowest airplanes to Oshkosh! I'm participating in the 2014 AirVenture Cup tomorrow, technically from Mitchell to Wausau, WI, and continuing on into OSH.

I was roped into this by a friend who formerly flew with me at my last airline and now flies for USAirways. He's the Vice-Chairman for the race committee, and has been helping put in on since he was in his teens. I've met other AVC volunteers and participants at previous Oshkoshes, and it always sounded like a good time. So yesterday, Friday July 25, I packed up the Cub with camping equipment and headed west, averaging 55 kts groundspeed over 4 hours flying time to Mitchell with fuel stops in Redwood Falls, MN and Brookings, SD. Approaching Mitchell, the airport was already quite busy with arrivals by RV-6s, Long-EZs, Lancairs, Glasairs, SX300s, Questairs, Thunder Mustangs, and even a Cassutt or two. If it wasn't clear that this is a race populated by people serious about speed, it was after I flew over the airport while three experimentals made low passes down Runway 30 at velocities I'd normally associate with the jets I fly for work. What was I doing here with a Cub!?

I duly made my "high speed" pass down Runway 30 - I think I broke 100 mph in the dive! - and landed. From the moment the little 75 hp Continental puttered to a halt, all the volunteers, racers, and spectators welcomed me as though I was an old-time veteran racing a 300 mph Lancair. Racing the Cub, believe it or not, isn't exactly a novelty - they've had an equally-slow Pietenpol race multiple times before! But it has been a good conversation starter, and I've naturally become known as "the guy racing the Cub." Most of the people here have Cub memories of their own, and clearly have a soft spot for the airplane. There were actually three Cubs in attendance today for the open house and Young Eagles event. Despite a 3 hour delay due to some heavy weather this morning, a lot of people ended coming out and we flew 126 Young Eagles. We had plenty of pilot volunteers, and I took up 3 youngsters in the Cub, all of whom elected to leave the door open and enjoy the cool breeze and great views. Mark Baker, President of AOPA, flew in with his Caravan amphib and addressed the crowd both at the airport and at our pre-race briefing/banquet tonight. He had some great things to say about lowering the expense of flying for newcomers, particularly promoting flying clubs and simple used aircraft like the C150/152, or the Cub. You don't hear many industry groups talking like that, because it doesn't benefit the manufacturers - not directly, anyways (down the road, I think anything that reverses the decline in the pilot population will pay dividends throughout GA).

I'm taking off tomorrow at 6:30am, in the interest of making it across the finish line and into Oshkosh while the beer's still cold. It sounds like I'll actually have good tailwinds, but perhaps some lower ceilings and showery activity across Minnesota and Wisconsin. It's 368nm to the finish line, and another 80 or so into Oshkosh, which is a grand adventure in a Cub any day! We'll see if I make it in one day - safety is priority number one, and if weather forces me to abandon the race, that's a lot better than pressing on into deteriorating conditions in a very basic airplane. Whether I finish tomorrow or later in the week, there will be a lot of cool new friends with slick speed machines to meet up with in Oshkosh.

Friday, July 25, 2014

I Heart NY

Well, it sure didn’t take long to get off low-time restrictions. My seven weeks of line flying on the Mad Dog have netted me 120 hours in the plane despite being on reserve. Reserve pilots usually fly less than lineholders because you're seldom used every day, you do plenty of oddball 1- or 2-leg trips, and you tend to ride around in the back of airplanes a lot (deadheading). This summer, though, my company is doing a lot of flying, especially in the Mad Dog, and it’s all hands on deck. Thus far I’ve been used on nearly every day of reserve, mostly for 3 and 4 day trips.

I’m based in New York City, partially by choice. My airline has a Mad Dog domicile in Minneapolis, but it’s proving to be an extremely popular base among our junior pilots. I estimate that there are 50+ pilots between me and the “plug” in MSP, meaning it could be a year or more before I can hold it. In the meantime I’m forced to either move or commute. Dawn has a good job she enjoys in the Twin Cities, we like our home here, and we’ve become used to having family nearby, so we’ve decided to stay put for the time being. My choice then, is which commute is least painful. I can hold all three other Mad Dog bases, but the first is a small base connected to MSP only by 50-seat RJs, and the second has a ton of employees that commute from MSP, making it difficult to find an open seat or jumpseat. New York, however, has plenty of flights from MSP, they tend to have seats available, and I have higher seniority there than I would in any other base. This is true across all fleets at my airline: NYC goes junior.

This extra seniority comes at a price. NYC-based pilots at my company must cover three separate airports (LGA, JFK, and EWR); moving between them is slow and expensive, and the airspace and airports are both quite congested. Because there’s so much Origination & Destination (O&D) traffic, many of the rotations begin early in the morning and end late at night, forcing pilots to commute on their days off and spend extra nights in the domicile. That said, because so many NYC-based crewmembers are commuters (I’ve seen estimates of 80%), there’s a pretty well developed infrastructure in place. For starters, there are many crashpads scattered throughout Queens between LGA and JFK. One area, Kew Gardens, hosts so many crashpads that it has acquired the nickname of “Crew Gardens” and boasts a cab company that caters almost solely to airline crew. Some crashpads are pretty basic and offer little more than a mattress for the night; others offer all the comforts of home. My crashpad is actually pretty close to LGA, in Jackson Heights, since ¾ of the Mad Dog flying is out of that airport. It’s quite nice, well equipped and clean, with its own free shuttle service to LGA and JFK. It's also not far off the E or 7 trains, making it easy to go into Manhattan on the rare reserve days I'm not being used.

Commuting to reserve is a notoriously tough gig, but the work rules at my airline make it a lot easier than it was at either of my last two companies. Most reserve days are “long call," meaning I get at least 12 hours notice before report time, and I usually know about trips by 3pm the day before I start reserve, making informed commuting decisions much easier. On the first day of reserve we cannot be assigned a trip that begins before 10am. Many of the trips begin or end with deadheads; our contract allows us to “deviate” from a scheduled deadhead positive-space. So if I begin work tomorrow and am awarded a trip for which the first leg is a deadhead LGA-ATL, I call crew scheduling, tell them I will deviate, and book positive-space travel MSP-ATL for around the same time as the original deadhead. I save myself a night away from home and get a confirmed seat to work - score! Reserves can put in “Yellow Slips” that tell crew scheduling their preferences for awarded trips. I have a permanent yellow slip for trips that begin or end with a deadhead, as well as for trips that have a report time after 1pm and/or release time before 6pm (allowing a same-day commute). Obviously if a trip needs to be covered and I’m next in line, I’m going to fly it regardless of preferences, but if there are several trips to be covered and one meets my criteria, that’s the one I get. This has worked very well over the last month, giving me multiple extra nights at home and eliminating several potentially stressful commutes.

The Preferential Bidding Software (PBS) that my airline uses also gives reserve bidders much more flexibility than my last company. If you wish, you can lump all 17 reserve days into a single giant block, giving yourself a stretch of 13 days off (or 26, if you go back-to-back across bid periods). Of course, under Part 117 you are required to have 30 hours free of duty every 168 hours (7 days), so unless you are awarded a trip with a 30-hour overnight, you’ll end up with extra days off in the middle of your reserve block. This has happened several times, and the timing has worked out to give me several extra nights back in Minnesota.

Because of all the flying this summer, crew scheduling is offering a lot of “green slips” – basically, last-minute trips on your days off for premium pay and/or additional “payback days” off later in the month. A lot of senior pilots, anticipating the ability to make extra cash by green-slipping, purposely bid reserve with the first two weeks off, during which they pick up enough green slips to get the next two weeks off, during which they greenslip yet more, essentially flying the whole month at 200% pay. This is known as "Rolling Thunder." Those senior enough to buddy-bid with check airmen often get their trips bought off for IOE and then greenslip the entire month, basically making 300% pay. We have one Mad Dog FO in NYC that reportedly made over $300k last year doing exactly this.

As for me, I value summer days off far more than extra cash, so I don’t bid with green slips in mind, and I don’t hang around NYC any longer than necessary hoping I’ll get one. Thanks to the fact that reserve is going fairly senior, and that I’m already #80 out of 105 FOs in my category, I got a regular line for August, and a pretty nice one at that! All the trips are commutable on at least one end, I got partial weekends off, and I got a mid-month 8-day stretch of days off for a sailing trip I’m doing out of LA. Not bad for my third month! So yes, New York can be a pain to get to, and it can be crowded, dirty, and expensive, and the airports can be pretty hectic places – but these things, much like the Mad Dog's quirks, keep senior FOs away and afford me much better seniority than I'd otherwise have. So I don't care what anyone says - 'till the day that I can hold Minneapolis, I love NY!

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Old School / New School

I’ve been flying the Mad Dog on the line for about five weeks now, have finished IOE, am on my third week of reserve, and have about 90 hours in the airplane. I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable yet – that’s going to take some time – but it’s getting more natural, I’m not having to make such a conscious effort to think ahead, I’m making fewer mistakes, and I’m up to about 90% of the speed of an experienced FO. It takes time to get used to any new airliner, but probably more than most in the Mad Dog, simply because it’s such a quirky, busy airplane. The good news is that the quickest way to get used to any airplane is to fly a lot of cycles in a short amount of time, and I’m certainly doing that.

The Mad Dog is basically a late 1980s stretch and update to a 1960s design. It is a contemporary of both the Boeing 757 and the Airbus A320, two much better designs in many respects. Perhaps a better comparison is the B737, another continually stretched and updated 1960s airplane that is not as good as it should be because Boeing maintained commonality with the earlier design. The Mad Dog’s builder was notorious for their thriftiness, reuse of existing components, and leaving as much of their designs unchanged as possible. The Mad Dog actually uses the exact same knob for its cockpit window latches as was used on the DC-3 (and -4, -6, and -7) throttle levers! Less humorously, the largest Mad Dog variant weighs in at up to 168,000 lbs MGTOW and uses the same basic wing as much smaller predecessors.

This lack of wing is the airplane’s most notable shortcoming. Its clean stall speed is quite high, which combined with takeoff warning system malfunctions has resulted in several bad accidents when crews forgot to set flaps for takeoff. After takeoff, we are limited to 15 degrees of bank until reaching a clean maneuvering speed of 250 kts or more at high weights; if a tighter turn is called for, we have to leave the slats out until maneuvering is complete. At altitude, one has to pay very close attention to airspeed, as it’s easy to get behind the power curve and be forced to descend to avoid stalling. Consequently the airplane is quite altitude-limited; it’s common to have an initial cruise altitude of FL300 or lower, a real handicap in thunderstorm season. The B737 comparison holds up here, as the newest super-stretch versions of that design are similarly limited.

In the cockpit, the Mad Dog kept many of the quirks of the original. Several systems retain manual controls and switches where competitors automated them – the pneumatic crossfeed valves, for example, or the fuel system, or engine ignition. The engine start valves are manual and must be continuously held throughout the start, making that a three-limb exercise in which the poor FO begs the Captain to taxi slower lest a pothole dislodge his finger and prompt an aborted start. The engines have no FADEC and care must be taken to avoid an overtemp or overspeed. The spoiler and flap handles are Rube Goldberg devices (held over from the original) that take practice to activate without a struggle. The whiskey compass is famously (and hilariously) mounted on the aft cockpit bulkhead, requiring a light switch and a glareshield mirror adjusted to look through another mirror in order to read it! There’s no way the FAA would certify such an arrangement on a new design, but because somebody gave the OK in 1965, the cockamamie arrangement lives on even in the Mad Dog’s younger cousin, the Angry Pup.

For all that, this is an airplane that has glass, dual FMS, autothrottles, autoland, and even VNAV. It’s all these new-school gizmos, combined with the retention of old-school systems, that make the Mad Dog so much busier than its simpler predecessors.  There's also the fact that these features represented early efforts in automation, as conceived by Long Beach - consider them an alternative vision of a future that never was. So we have glass, but the engine display shows the exact same round engine dials as the non-glass airplane, and the PFD just displays an attitude indicator; airspeed and altitude still have their own round-dial analog gauges. There’s a Flight Mode Annunciator, but it’s mounted inboard of the flight instruments, out of the pilot’s direct view despite being absolutely critical to keep in one’s scan. The autothrottles are laggy and flaky and occasionally command huge splits. The autopilot has two speed windows depending on which pitch mode you’re in, and reversion to another mode will also cause reversion to another speed if you’ve failed to keep the inactive window updated. The dual Honeywell FMS is surprisingly modern and capable (it's actually fairly similar to the JungleBus’ FMS) but since the airplane doesn’t have GPS, we can’t do RNAV approaches and frequently monitor raw data (the box determines its position through IRS/DME/DME inputs). The VNAV is unnecessarily complicated while being rather opaque and often unreliable, requiring very close attention to make sure it’s doing what you think it should be doing. That’s a pretty good description of the whole plane, really. It demands a lot of attention.

From this description you might think I dislike the Mad Dog, and nothing could be further from the truth. I’m having a blast! It’s so utterly unlike the JungleBus, and that’s 90% of the fun. The JungleBus would lull you to sleep if you let it; that’s never a threat in the Mad Dog. The plane is built like the proverbial brick shithouse. Flap and gear speeds are ludicrously high (Flaps 11 at 280 kts, Flaps 40 at 200) so there’s seldom any danger of being caught high. The engines are the penultimate -219 variant of the venerable JT8D, and are pretty reliable for an old design. Systems, though they lack automation, are extremely simple and robust. The controls are virtually foolproof (with proper maintenance; see Alaska 261); fly-by-wire in this plane means 3/8” stainless steel cables connecting the control columns to control tabs on each flying surface. The controls aren’t sporty by any means (those are pretty small tabs that you’re moving!), but the plane flies so solidly that it doesn’t really matter. It just sorta stays where you put it – kinda like the Piper Lance of my freight-dogging days, now that I think about it. The cockpit is extremely quiet, thanks to the rear-mounted engines. The seats are pretty comfortable. There are some neat unique features, like the takeoff condition computer to verify your takeoff trim setting and the dial-a-flap detent for optimized-performance takeoff configurations and get-down-quick descent settings. There are something like 30 different rheostats for ultimate night cockpit customization; I’m still figuring out which does what. Yeah, so cockpit trim pieces are always falling in my lap and the windows leaks on me every time it rains. It builds character! My airline is 100% sold on the Mad Dog’s financial performance and it seems they’ll be in the fleet for a long time to come. If the Mad Dog is going to be my upgrade airplane, I’m glad to be getting experience in it as an FO.

It’s worth noting that my airline actually has two Mad Dog variants. I'll call the newer one the Big Dog, as it seats 11 more passengers. It also has high-bypass turbofans with electronic engine control, more automated systems, and a hydraulic elevator that improves control responsiveness. Over the last couple years my airline has greatly expanded the Big Dog fleet, buying every used copy they could get their hands on; there are now roughly half as many Big Dogs as Mad Dogs. One of our largest competitors was until recently the world’s largest operator of Mad Dogs, though they call them by another name. Their variant is the exact same as ours, except they lack our quasi-glass cockpit. Our version has a different designator only because my airline insisted on it when they ordered them. Alas, the competition is rapidly forsaking their Mad Dog roots for the electric charms of the A320, making my airline the world's new Mad Dog king (especially if you count the Angry Pup, of which we're getting 88). Lots of Mad Dog FOs are moving to other airframes or to the left seat, making the Mad Dog a very common first airplane for new hires, and affording me nearly instant seniority in our junior New York base. I'll write about commuting to work there in my next post.

Friday, June 13, 2014

No More Inflight Selfies?

Well silly me for not keeping closer tabs on the Federal Registrar. I didn't know about this until a friend brought it to my attention, but in April the FAA published a final rule amending FAR §121.542 - more popularly known as the "sterile cockpit rule" - to include a prohibition on the personal use of laptops and personal electronic devices during all phases of flight. This isn't a huge surprise, because Congress told them to change the rule two years ago in a delayed reaction to the NW188 overflight incident in 2010. It's somewhat of a moot point now as the language is restricted to Part 121 operators and most airlines have already changed their policies to prohibit inflight pilot usage of PEDs. But the final language is a bit interesting, not least because it leaves somewhat ambiguous the question of whether it is legal to take a photo in cruise with a digital camera.
§121.542(d): During all flight time as defined in 14 CFR 1.1, no flight crewmember may use, nor may any pilot in command permit the use of, a personal wireless communications device (as defined in 49 U.S.C. 44732(d)) or laptop computer while at a flight crewmember duty station unless the purpose is directly related to operation of the aircraft, or for emergency, safety-related, or employment-related communications, in accordance with air carrier procedures approved by the Administrator.
First off, the reference to "flight time as defined in 14 CFR 1.1" means that this rule is applicable from the time the aircraft first moves under its own power to the time it comes to rest after landing - i.e., from taxi until parked at the gate. Though it doesn't say it in the reg, the FAA clarified in the final rule that the "personal" in "personal wireless communications device" refers to usage, not ownership. So this regulation also applies to company-provided EFBs or tablets if they are used for any purpose not directly related to operation of the aircraft, or emergency, safety-related, or employment-related communications. The real question is what exactly constitutes a "wireless communications device." The definition used comes from the Communications Act of 1934, which as amended states that "personal wireless services means commercial mobile services, unlicensed wireless services, and common carrier wireless exchange access service." In the final rule, the FAA further defined wireless telecommunications as the transfer of information between two or more points that are not physically connected. This would seem to exclude, say, an old-school iPod or cheap memory stick music player, yet the FAA included these as examples of devices which would be prohibited, as well as e-readers though the early ones had no wireless capability. Their sample list of prohibited devices doesn't really jibe with the language of the ruling.

What about cameras, then? There's no specific mention of them in the rule or accompanying discussion. It's pretty clear that a smartphone or tablet camera is prohibited. I suspect my little Nikon Coolpix is as well, since it has wifi & bluetooth transmit features. But what of my Nikon D5100 digital SLR? It has no wireless capabilities. Ditto for my first-generation GoPro camera. It's a gray area. Here's another potential loophole: the FAA says jumpseaters are excepted from the rule. So maybe, you can have a jumpseater fish your smartphone out of your bag and take a photo! But don't ham it up too much for the camera, the feds might call that "use!"

It's a moot point for me, in any case. My new airline has FOM language that is more restrictive than the FAR, as it includes both pilots and jumpseaters using any electronic device not certified for use in the aircraft, and actually begins with the reading of the Pre-Flight Checklist (typically 10 minutes prior to pushback). I originally had the idea that my old Nikon N60 35mm SLR would be allowed, but then realized that as old school as it is, it does use electronics for autofocus, metering, and film rewinding. So it looks like the one legal camera to use for inflight cockpit shots at my new airline is one of those 12-shot disposable film long as I can find one without a flash! Sorry to say, I don't think you can expect any more inflight shots from me, at least in the Mad Dog.

Now the Cub? That's still fair game! The feds seem hellbound on legislating airline pilots straight to sleep, but thankfully we can still have some fun in GA!