Pattern Work in the Swift

by on November 22, 2014

I managed to get the Swift back into the air for an hour yesterday.  I had looked at the weather forecast and today (Saturday) around Reno wasn’t supposed to look very nice. It turned out that they were right. It has rained off and on most of the day and the winds have been gusting around 35kts. Reno-Stead (KRTS) is currently:

KRTS 222335Z AUTO 31025G32KT 9SM -RA FEW031 SCT041 BKN050 07/02 A3005 RMK AO2 P001

The runways are 8-26 and 14-32, so it’s close to being down the runway.  Multiple layers of clouds and light rain don’t really make for a nice VFR day though. The field elevation is 5050’MSL so the broken cloud layer would be at a bit over 10,000′ MSL with those scattered layers starting at about 8200’MSL. Peavine Mountain, 11 nm SW of Stead goes up to 8700′. Donner Pass on Interstate 80 leading to Sacramento tops out at about 7100′ with 9000’+ peaks on each side. Blue Canyon (KBLU) on the west side of the pass is now reporting 200′ BKN  1/2SM with light rain and fog.  Glad I got out yesterday.

Standing waves over Reno-Stead.

Standing waves over Reno-Stead.

As I got ready for the flight it wasn’t apparent that the weather guys were getting the winds right. I took this photo looking north down my hangar row while my engine pre-heater was doing its thing.  It’s obvious that the upper level winds were forming some waves on the eastern side of the Sierras.

The winds on the ground were reasonable and the TAF said that they were supposed to stay that way so I thought I’d give it a try. I figured that I could always just stay in the pattern. I got up in the air about 2 pm and headed north for a bit – to the end of the valley where Stead is located then turned west to the next valley that direction picked up highway 395 and took it south back to the Stead end of that valley.

Looking South past Reno.

Looking South past Reno.

Looking at the GPS ground speeds while flying the various directions it was apparent that the stronger upper level winds were there they just hadn’t received the push to come down to the surface. Whenever I got on the eastern side of a mountain range/peak it got a bit bumpy. Never more than an occasional moderate bump but I wouldn’t have wanted to go any long distances in the conditions.

During the time I was flying there were about a half dozen other planes that came to or left from Stead. When I got back to the stead area valley I headed north again to let a couple of them enter the pattern then turned back south for my pattern entry. When I turned south and before I started the descent to pattern altitude I snapped another picture looking down the valley past Reno. You can see standing wave clouds starting to form down that way, too.

Swift-Patterns

Swift pattern work recorded using Foreflight and imported into Google Earth

I had been flying for about a half hour when I got back into the pattern and wanted to log at least an hour so round and round I went.

My first couple of patterns were shared with a Maule. We managed to stay on opposite sides of the pattern, so spacing was never an issue. Then they landed and I was on my own. If you count the ground tracks you will see 7 trips around runway 26. I keep my patterns pretty tight since the glide ratio of the Swift is about the same as a crowbar.

I probably would have flown a few more circuits but there appeared to be rain showers coming over the ridge to the west. When it became obvious that they were continuing to move toward the airport I headed for the hangar. By the time I got the plane cleaned up and covered there was light rain falling.

We can really use the precip around here, so it would be fine with me if it poured (or snowed) for a few days.

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All Set for Another 2 Years

by on November 17, 2014

Piper Cherokee similar to the one I flew for the Flight Review. Photo Credit: Lau Svensson, Flickr:CC

Piper Cherokee similar to the one I flew for the Flight Review. Photo Credit: Lau Svensson, Flickr:CC

I managed to check off all the required boxes for another two years.  With a fresh eye exam and two new pair of glasses I headed to the AME for my FAA Class III medical. That went smoothly – with the admonition that I need to get off my butt and get more exercise. That was not at all unexpected.

I mentioned in my last post that I had purchased the Sporty’s Flight Review iPad app for my review. I completed it – an hour and 40 minutes of short videos covering the required ground items. It was OK, but not something I will do in the future. It was much too easy to let my mind wander while the videos played – putting in the time, but not really having the information sink in. I guess it depends upon your motivation/dedication to complete the review – and if it’s really a review or seems like new information.

I also said that I was going to try the FAA online course again. I did do that ( Course ALC-25 at FAASafety.gov ). It is a free, self-paced course with a quiz at the end. Successful completion of the course material and quiz permits you to print out a completion certificate and earns you an hour of ground training in the FAA Wings Program.  Since the course is self-paced you can complete it as quickly as you want. The time it takes is directly related to how much of the supplemental material you access and study. There are multiple links in each section to relevant online Regulations, sections of the AIM and other manuals/advisory circulars. I actually enjoyed this course more than the iPad version – mainly because I could easily access and study more relevant information if I desired – which, as usual, led to links to more information that sounded interesting, etc, etc. Rabbit holes everywhere…

After running through the two courses I was able to arrange to spend enough time with an instructor to assure him that I know enough to fly competently and safely. The ground part of the official Flight Review was pretty straight forward though I have one area that always irritates me.

<RANT>

Students are taught (and flight reviews reinforce) the memorization of what in my opinion is aviation trivia. Things like the daytime VFR visibility and cloud clearances in Class E airspace above 1200′ AGL and below 10,000′ MSL. Every student can spout those numbers and virtually every CFI asks the question on each Flight Review.  Can anyone gauge accurately those distances while in flight traveling at 2 or 3 miles a minute?  Does anyone address the fact that those are the absolute minimums that are specified by the FAA and that if you are flying VFR in those conditions it does not register a very high score in the judgement block?  Just because those numbers are published  does not mean that you should be flying by them. Yes, I’ve flown VFR at, and probably below, the published minimums because of my errors in judgement. I have been lucky and survived without hurting myself or an airplane but the experience has taught me that there is no reason to do it again. You have a pilot certificate – set your own VFR minimums according to your abilities and the capabilities of the aircraft you are flying. Is it legal to take off VFR from your home airport in Class G airspace with 1 mile visibility? Yes. Is it smart? Not even close.  I know, you have to know the numbers to pass the written and oral exams for the various pilot certificates. There has to be a knowledge starting point of some sort that can be evaluated. But the general aviation accident rate doesn’t relate to rote memory of trivia, it relates to poor aeronautical judgement – judgement that says that one mile visibility is legal so I can go ahead and take off.

</RANT>

I chose to do the flying part of my Flight Review in the instructor’s airplane for a change of pace from my normal flying. He has a Piper PA-28-180 in the form of a Cherokee Challenger based in Carson City (KCXP). Yeah, I had to look that one up, too. It is the predecessor to the Piper Archer – four-place, fixed gear, Hershey-bar wing. It is a nice-flying, stable aircraft even if it does have the little wheel on the wrong end. We accomplished all the standard Flight Review maneuvers and then for fun flew over to Reno and requested vectors to the ILS for Runway 32 at Stead. A Garmin 430 had been installed in the plane recently and it was a good way to check it out. There is also a basic autopilot installed in the plane but I elected to hand-fly the approach for practice and because my philosophy has always been that if you don’t know exactly how the autopilot works you shouldn’t be using it. Having an autopilot do something that you are not expecting and then trying to figure out what is going on is an excellent way to totally screw up an instrument approach.  The approach went well (in perfect VFR conditions) and the experience got me interested in getting my IFR currency back again. Going through the hoops of passing an IPC would probably be a fun challenge. The hitch would then be in trying to maintain the currency.  My Swift only has a communicaitons radio and a transponder so maintaining IFR currency would require renting another plane – an added expense that is not in the budget. I might reconsider should I elect to upgrade the panel enough to comply with the ADS-B mandate in 2020 but that is a long way (and three physicals) in the future. Who knows what will happen by then…

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Not Flying Much Lately

by on November 7, 2014

Swift Nose and Truck LicenseIt’s been about a month since my last flying report – the trip to Bridgeport for lunch. A week ago I made a really short trip to Carson City and back. Twenty-five minutes each way, engine start to stop. I wanted to change the oil in the Swift to a multi-weight (Aeroshell 15W50) for the winter flying season and needed to heat up the oil to make it easier to drain. Also, the price of 100LL in Carson was 75 cents a gallon lower than at Stead. It turns out that in order to break even, considering the amount of gas I burned on the round trip,  I would have had to buy 42 gallons but I only needed 29 to top off the tanks.  That means I would have saved money by filling up at Stead at the higher price per gallon. Nevertheless,  it was a good excuse to go flying… as if you actually need one…

When I got back to the hangar I changed the oil and got almost everything put back together before the temperature started to drop nearing sunset. I came back the next afternoon and finished up the process – cut open the filter to make sure there was nothing unusual in there, got safety wire back where it was needed, re-installed the cowling, cleaned all the bugs off from the flight and covered up the plane with the dust covers. Then I gathered up all the liquids in the hangar that shouldn’t freeze and put them in the truck to take home. Night time temperatures are getting just below freezing now and should get near the ‘hard freeze’ point by the end of the month. Nuvite, the aluminum polish that I use, specifically states to not let it freeze. As much as I use and as expensive as it is, I play by their rules.

Now I’m in a holding pattern. I get an eye exam in a few days and can then get new glasses. With those in hand I can schedule my FAA medical. Once that is completed I can schedule my Flight Review. Everything comes due at once.

To prepare for the Flight Review this time I bought the Sporty’s Flight Review App for my iPad.  So far it’s OK – nothing that I didn’t already know/remember. That’s the point, though, isn’t it – a review of things that you already know and use. If you are finding new information in the ‘review’ then you have been flying without all the proper tools. When I finish with the app I’ll go on and try the FAA Flight Review Prep Course on the FAA Safety website. I took it last time and thought it was pretty good. Then I’ll schedule the Flight Review with an instructor.

Last time I used an instructor from my home airport. This time I think I’ll try one from one of the local EAA chapters. And I am considering doing it in his airplane rather than mine. It will give me a chance to fly something different (PA-28-180) and the instructor will be more likely concentrate more on my performance than the airplane’s. When I get a younger instructor to administer the review in my plane they occasionally are more interested in getting to fly the Swift than they are in doing the review. I’d probably be the same way if someone wanted me to administer a Flight Review in something like a Meridian. But that rarely happens for anyone because the insurance companies require formal recurrent training in that type of plane and graduating from that training would qualify as a Flight Review. That’s very similar to why you rarely see an active airline pilot getting a Flight Review – the Part 121 recurrent training fills the requirement.

Nor do you see military pilots getting Flight Reviews. At least one of the military annual checkrides could qualify as a Flight Review. Also, just because an individual is a military pilot does not mean that they have a pilot’s license. When you graduate from Undergraduate Pilot Training in one of the military services you are awarded the wings of the associated military service – Air Force wings, Naval Aviation wings, etc. , you are not awarded an FAA pilot certificate. You must earn that on your own. The FAA recognizes the quality of training that you have received and will award an appropriate FAA pilot certificate if you pass a written exam on the civilian flying regulations, but you must take the initiative to study for, schedule and pass the exam. I’m not sure why you wouldn’t make the effort, especially in today’s economy and with the projections for military budget and force reductions, but I’m sure there are some military pilots operating out there without FAA certificates.

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A reader has asked me an interesting and somewhat complicated question concerning flying currency for both military and civilian professional pilots especially when coupled with the life expectancy of various airframes and allowable budgets. Wow. I don’t know, but I would guess that even a small part of that topic has been the subject of a number of papers at various Air or Naval War College sessions.

Airframe Hours

First a bit about the life expectancy of aircraft airframes. Manufacturers build aircraft with a life-expectancy in mind, usually expressed in cycles and/or flight hours. Cycles are usually taken to be one takeoff and one landing. It correlates to both landing gear operations and, for pressurized aircraft, the pressurization and de-pressurizing cycle associated with a single flight. Aircraft similar to the Boeing 737 that an airline like Southwest uses could see as many as seven cycles in a day while something like a Boeing 747, 777 or 787 flying internationally and making a takeoff  with a corresponding landing 8 – 14 hours later may only log a cycle every day and a half. For long-haul aircraft  it may be more appropriate to use flight hours as a gauge of aircraft age.

Most transport category aircraft are maintained using a periodic inspection process while smaller planes, especially general aviation planes, use an annual inspection. All of them receive the same types of inspections over the 12 months, but the transport category planes get to do it in a piece-meal fashion, possibly checking a specific list of systems each quarter. That allows the operator to complete the inspections during a long overnight at a one of its maintenance bases  rather than taking the aircraft out of service for several days.

Transport planes also have something called a ‘Heavy Check’ or a ‘C Check’ that takes the airframe out of service for an extended period while the maintenance facility essentially takes the plane apart, inspects everything, makes necessary repairs and then puts it back together. It’s pretty impressive to see a 747 up on jacks in a hangar with almost nothing inside it between the upper skin and the lower skin. And I can tell you from experience that the stuff that ends up in the bottom of an airliner is just plain gross.

If you take an airplane completely apart, inspect it carefully and professionally and put it back together again you , in effect, have a new airframe. That is why you see personal airplanes originally manufactured in the 1920s and 1930s still in operation. The ones that have been totally ‘restored’ are like-new or better than new because often outdated hardware and coverings will be replaced with modern materials (with FAA Approval, of course).

Military aircraft go through the same process and the inspections are probably more critical. The environment in which military aircraft operate requires many more hours of maintenance per flight hour than a civilian transport aircraft. Fortunately, for the military, there are many more maintenance technicians assigned to each aircraft, often assigned to a specific airframe, to make sure that the aircraft remains airworthy and operationally ready. Every airframe is different, just like every car does not drive/feel/operate exactly the same. Assigning one technician or one team of technicians to a specific airframe allows them to learn the aircraft’s quirks and to develop a pride in their work. At least that is what I found in my service experience. If you never knew who was working on the plane then when something didn’t work right the finger was always pointing at someone else.

It’s pretty obvious when looking at the Air Force fleet of B-52’s that the ‘expected’ airframe life can be extended with diligent maintenance, refurbishment and upgrades. I’m sure there are some B-52 pilots out there who listened to their grandfathers talk about flying the first models of the bomber. I remember seeing my first Lockheed C-5 on the ramp at Cam Rahn Bay in Vietnam. Then ten years later I was flying it and continued to do so until I retired eight years later. The C-5 is still flying with our Air Force Reserve units around the country.

Do accidents happen because an airframe has gotten too old? Sure they do. In 1988, Aloha Airlines a Boeing 737-100 operating as Flight 243 had part of the top of the fuselage fail structurally. The plane had been built in 1969 and had 89,680 cycles (35,496 hours) logged. One of the findings was that the airline’s inspection and maintenance programs were deficient.

Could this happen again?  I doubt it. For one, the FAA has gotten more strict on the allowable cycles before an airframe must be retired. And the public just doesn’t like to fly on the older airplanes – shiny and new is always better, even if the plane is made of composites. Airlines are continually cycling new airframes into their fleet, usually because the life-cycle cost of maintenance and operation pencils out to be cheaper than the older airframes.

 

Flight Training, Currency and Budgets

So,  we have figured out that we can make commercial airframes last as long as is financially feasible and in the case of the military we can continue to rebuilt/refurbish/upgrade the airframes until Congress can be convinced that the military really needs something new.

Airline training budgets are penciled out to be as lean as possible. Even the classroom portions of the training are compressed into the minimum possible time so that the pilots get into revenue-generating mode as quickly as possible.  I just read a good article on the subject of initial airline training in the December issue of Flight Training Magazine (p. 40).  The training was described, in basic terms:

  1.  Airline Indoctrination – 2 weeks
  2. Aircraft Systems – 1-2 weeks
  3. Flight Training Device/Procedures Trainer – 1-2 weeks
  4. Simulator Training – 2-3 weeks
  5. IOE (Initial Operating Experience in the actual aircraft) – 25 hours flight time

Each phase has at lease one written/oral/practical evaluation. The longer phase times would apply for the larger, more complex aircraft types. Now that the FAA has mandated that airline pilots (Part 121 scheduled airlines) must have at least 1500 hours of flight experience and an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate one could assume that the flight capability of a new airline pilot would be well established and the training would amount to something like upgrade training to a more complex aircraft and operation. Only the airlines know for sure.

Airline pilots have the same currency requirements as general aviation pilots with an instrument rating. In most cases there is no need to do anything other than fly the monthly bid schedule to met the minimum currency requirements for landings and instrument approaches. That changes if the pilot is sitting on call ( has bid or has been awarded a ‘Reserve’ position ). Reserve pilots are on call to fill in when a scheduled pilot says they are too sick to fly, has misread their schedule and failed to show up for a flight or when weather interrupts the best-laid plans of the airline. Occasionally a Reserve pilot will not be used for a period long enough that they must make a quick trip to the airline’s training facility to regain their landing currency in the simulator. There are also recurrent formal training requirements dictated by the airline’s operating certificate. Some have an annual 4 or 5-day simulator session and a short refresher 6 months later. Others have a short simulator session every 9 months. It depends upon what they have presented to the FAA and has been approved.

Airline training budgets are factored into the cost of increasing or renewing the airline’s pilot population. Airline expansion plans, aircraft replacements and simulator purchases are all analyzed over and over to come up with the right mix to accomplish the airline’s goals. If the numbers don’t add up they either shelve their plans or find an additional source of funds to make the changes. Baggage fees, box lunches and seat selection fees seem to be working for them right now.

Military training is a totally different animal. The only way to become a military pilot is to go through the respective pilot training program. When I went through Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) it was one year long. They started in the Cessna 172, progressed to the Cessna T-37 and finished up with the Northrup T-38. Now I believe they split after the T-37 and send part of each class to the Beechjet ( Raytheon T-1 Jayhawk ) for multi-engine training and a follow-on assignment to transport-category aircraft. It seems like a really long time compared to the airline training but you have to realize that the airlines are not going to spend time teaching you low-level navigation, aerobatic or formation (2-ship & 4-ship) flying. After graduating from UPT the newly-minted military pilot will be assigned to an operational weapon system and will then move on to specialized training in that aircraft. The military follow-on training could be related to upgrade training for a new airline aircraft except that it would also include all of the mission-specific training associated with the weapon system. That would be things like low-level navigation, air refueling, air-drop, air-to-air or air-to-ground weapons delivery, etc.  I would imagine that there is someone in some small room in the bottom of the Pentagon who knows just how much it costs to graduate a pilot for each weapon system in the inventory. I doubt that my calculator has enough digits.

Currency for a military pilot is as complicated as the initial training. I remember taking multiple checkrides each year – there were VFR checkrides, IFR checkrides, Formation checkrides, Air Refueling checkrides, etc, etc. There were evaluations in every phase of flight that your aircraft was expected to fly. There were also associated currency requirements – landings of different types, day and night, air refueling sorties – light weight, heavy-weight, day and night, instrument approaches of various types and VFR landings of different types.

With all those different types of currency requirements how can you maintain a mission-ready status? I imagine that unit commanders lose a lot of sleep trying to figure that out. When the budget gets cut again and again and you can’t maintain a mission-ready status (which is required) I would imagine that your only option is to reduce the number of planes and pilots that you have to maintain.  I heard someone say recently that our military budget is approaching the level it was before WWII. With budgets at those levels and prices at our current levels how will the military pilots stay current in all the missions they are expected to fly? I have no idea. Maybe they are spending more time in simulators – and the simulators have been upgraded to permit landing currency events. I didn’t see that quality of simulation until I joined an airline. While flying the C-5 as an instructor/evaluator we were spending 4 hours in the traffic pattern with multiple pilots on board making sure that each one logged their minimum landing/instrument approach requirements. We did the same thing with air refueling training missions only those flights lasted 5-6 hours.

I have no reservations about airline pilots maintaining their currency and, more importantly, proficiency.  Military budget cuts and sequestration have me wondering how the military can continue at it’s required readiness level.

Maybe one of you out there can shed some more current light on the subject.

 

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