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My Last Left Seat for FltPlan.com

August 24, 2011

I have enjoyed working with the FltPlan.com people immensely over the past year. All of you who use the system—and it is the vast majority of pilots who fly turbine airplanes for business—know that FltPlan.com is a system created by active pilots for active pilots.

There are so many useful aspects of FltPlan.com, but I think that one feature summarizes how thorough and useful the system is and that is wind. There is nothing more useless than a still air flight plan, and you never get one of those from FltPlan.com. No matter how far in advance you plan a flight you will see trip time and fuel burn based on historic wind for that day. And if you use the “quick info” page you even see the best, worst and most likely winds for that day.

The fact that FltPlan.com understands the fundamental nature of wind and its impact on every flight is evidence that it knows what is important to pilots. And the other details that we want and need to plan our flights with confidence and convenience are all there.

And FltPlan.com has developed a way to have advertisers support its service while making the advertisements among the most useful information on the site. Instead of being an annoyance as on most websites, ads on FltPlan.com provide useful information that pertains directly to each of our flights. Knowing what FBOs and services are available at departure and destination airports is a huge plus. And you just can’t beat free when it comes to a great flight planning site.

The reason I can no longer post my aviation musings on FltPlan.com Left Seat is because I am increasing my involvement with EAA and its publications. EAA is, of course, the people who bring you the Oshkosh show, the largest aviation event on earth. EAA is under new leadership from president and CEO Rod Hightower and has big plans to expand its efforts to grow the pilot population. EAA’s Young Eagles take a kid for a flight program has been hugely successful for more than a decade, and now the organization is setting its sights on attracting adults who have always been at least a little interested in becoming pilots.

So to all of the wonderful people at FltPlan.com, I say thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of such a terrific service. And I hope each of you will take a new look at EAA and its efforts to support all of aviation. As pilots we’re all in this together.

Safer Than Ever, So Let’s Change Everything

August 16, 2011

There are reports that a list of new pilot training recommendations has been presented to Congress and the FAA. Near the top of the list is a new and big emphasis on hand-flying during all phases of pilot training and, presumably, during normal operations.

Let’s see. The major airlines in the U.S.—read that to mean jets—have not killed a single passenger since 2001. The longest major airline fatality-free period before this was two years, not 10. And following those previous brief safety interludes were higher-than-ever periods of fatal accidents.

The system has worked. Training, automation, new systems such as TCAS and GPWS have all cut the accident rate to a level I never imagined possible. So instead of celebrating success and saying we’re on the right track, the public and “experts” are wringing their hands about an imagined crisis.

Yes, the rest of the world does not enjoy the same level of airline safety as we do in the U.S. Not to be smug, but the rest of the world needs to do the changing.

And, yes, there have been two turboprop airline fatal accidents in the 10 year period where there have been no jet fatalities. But that record for turboprop safety is almost more astonishing than that for the jets because the turboprops had a so much worse record before the decade of unbelievable safety began.

Plus, why lump the turboprops in with the jets. For a host of reasons, turboprops, whether they fly in personal, business or airline missions, simply have not had the same level of safety as jets flying the same missions. So go after turboprop safety and don’t lump the jets in with them. Bring turboprop safety up to the level of jets before making changes in the obviously excellent job we are doing with jet safety.

As pilots, it’s hard to admit that cockpit automation and envelope protection systems that are part of fly-by-wire have made flying safer. But the record is clear. Increased automation is the only change that can possibly explain this enormous improvement in safety. Certainly pilots flying jet airliners 20 years ago were as skilled as those in the cockpit today, yet 20 years ago we averaged more than two fatal accidents a year. Now we have gone 10 years with none.

This whole frenzy over hand-flying and using automation less really comes from two accidents—the Q400 turboprop at Buffalo and the Air France Airbus over the Atlantic.

I don’t know what to say about the Buffalo accident. When a pilot pulls at the stall warning, and pulls against the stall barrier stick pusher, what can you say? Maintaining a safe airspeed is so fundamental to flying—no matter whether hand flying or on autopilot—I can’t imagine how a failure to do that can be cured by any type of training. That’s like training in lowering the landing gear before touchdown. How do you train for something even four-year-olds know how to do?

In the Airbus accident, the crew apparently suffered multiple cascading failures that handed them an airplane in turbulence in the middle of the night with no reliable airspeed indication and a list of warnings and messages that would confuse any pilot. Instead of pilot training changes, how about a new and fresh look at how an automated system transitions from one mode to the backup modes when extremely unlikely failures happen.

Bottom line, what we have been doing in airline and business jet pilot training is working, we have safety records that are unbelievably good, and we should keep fine tuning what we’re doing. If the goal is safety, I want more of the same.

California Avgas Disaster Looms

August 12, 2011

We all know that California is different. The oddity that threatens piston airplane owners in California now is Proposition 65, a unique law that allows anyone to bring a suit against, well, almost anybody claiming environmental damage is being done. The full name of Prop 65 is the California Safe Drinking Water & Toxic Enforcement Act.

Some groups in California are preparing a Prop 65 suit against FBOs and avgas makers because 100 LL avgas contains lead. There is no dispute that there is lead in avgas, but it’s there under federal rules that govern aviation operations.

But the FARs are no protection in California against a Prop 65 lawsuit. The real objective of Prop 65 court actions is not necessarily to stop lead from being used, but to win a large cash settlement. FBOs and fuel suppliers would not necessarily be banned from selling 100 LL avgas if a Prop 65 action prevails, but they will be forced to pay the groups bringing the suit many millions of dollars.

If a Prop 65 action against avgas providers goes forward there is no mystery about what will happen. California pilots will be left without avgas. Why would any FBO or fuel maker pay millions of dollars to conduct ordinary and legal business in a state? They won’t.

The reality is avgas is a very small minority of the total general aviation fuel market. FBOs and fuel suppliers could survive without the avgas business. I’m not saying avgas is a money loser, but it is dwarfed by jet fuel sales.

I talked to the head of one of the nation’s leading providers of general aviation fuel at Oshkosh a couple of weeks ago and asked him what he would do if a Prop 65 suit succeeds. The more than terse answer was, “what do you think.” There was no question mark implied at the end of his response.

California is the biggest state in the union by most measures, including population and economic size. That, plus some good flying weather and a long history of being home to much of the aerospace industry, also makes California home to the most general aviation airplanes and pilots. If those airplane owners are deprived of the fuel they need to fly their airplanes, it would be an enormous blow to all of general aviation.

The FAA administrator, the head of the EPA, and several members of Congress have asked the Secretary of the DOT to become involved in the California situation and to try to prevent a Prop 65 suit. It seems logical that federal laws governing aviation and interstate commerce would prevail, but, remember, this is California.

Whatever happens in California is unlikely to spill over into other states because they do not have anything like Prop 65 on the books. But a shortage of avgas in California would still have a huge negative impact on all of us in general aviation.

Touch Screen Avionics Go Big Time

August 1, 2011

Every new personal electronic device that I can think of uses touch screen technology to operate. It was just a matter of time before we would be tapping and swiping the screens on our avionics, and that time is here.

Garmin was first to deliver a full capability touch screen GPS navigation and comm flight management system with its GTN 750 and smaller GTN 650 earlier this year. The new line is a growth version of the company’s GSN 530/430 systems that, with more than 120,000 systems delivered, are the most popular ever in avionics history.

Garmin has also announced development of its G3000 integrated flat glass complete avionics suite that has been selected for the HondaJet and other light jets, and that system uses touch screen displays. And so does the Garmin G5000 system that is going into Cessna’s upgraded Citation Ten.

We expect that sort of innovation and on-the-edge technology from Garmin. After all, the company is only a little more than 20 years old and was founded on the belief that GPS would transform the way we fly. And the Garmin guys have been correct in most of their design decisions so far.

But what about the rest of the avionics industry? Would it accept touch screen as the way to interface with our avionics as we do with our smart phones and iPads? After a flurry of introductions of new equipment at the big Oshkosh show last week, the answer is yes.

The real seal of approval for touch screen came early in AirVenture when Rockwell Collins unveiled a new touch screen primary flight display (PFD) and multifunction display (MFD) as part of its Fusion line of avionics. Fusion is going into the largest business jets such as the Bombardier Global, as well as midsize jets. Fusion is top-of-the-line, and elements of it can be found in the Boeing 787 as well as other advanced airline jets.

Collins is the oldest and grandest name in avionics with a huge number of technology firsts. Collins created the first airborne comm radio that could be automatically tuned without hunting around with a frequency knob like you were dialing in an AM station in dad’s Buick. Collins also invented the horizontal situation indicator, the V-bar flight director, and perfected the single sideband technology that made HF a worldwide communication system. Actually, Collins communications went beyond the world because every voice ever transmitted from the moon was sent using Collins equipment.

Collins is clearly a technology leader, but is also an avionics industry giant. It doesn’t take chances with unproven methods because, well, it can’t afford to. Collins customers expect not only new technology, but proven, can’t-miss technology. The fact that Collins has rolled out touch screen controls on its top-of-the-line business jet avionics tells me touch screen is here to stay.

No offense to Garmin, Avidyne and Aspen—who have all delivered touch screen or announced touch screen systems for delivery in the coming months—but they are still newcomers to the avionics business. We expect these companies to be leading the charge because that’s what new companies must do to succeed. But the established leaders, such as Collins, have to find a balance between being a technology leader while still delivering only stuff that really works.

So get ready to tap and swipe in the cockpit just like we do with our personal devices. The flexible and intuitive nature of touch screen control that has made it totally standard in personal devices is too good to ignore when designing new avionics systems.

Are You Buying Enough Hull Coverage?

July 25, 2011

Larry Rachlin has been an independent aviation insurance agent since the Wright Brothers were still flying, or nearly so. He’s been my agent for more than 20 years. And over all of those years Larry has been urging his clients not to under-insure the hull value of their aircraft.

Larry’s message is even more important today because of the uncertain “market” value for most airplanes. His point is that hull coverage is a promise by the underwriters to pay for the repair of your airplane if it is damaged, not to replace the airplane. In fact, it’s not realistically possible to directly replace an airplane that is more than a few years old because the combination of hours, new equipment, overhaul intervals and so on are unique to each airplane.

When we have the annual discussion about how much hull insurance to buy on my airplane Larry always makes the same point. “Now imagine that a big thunderstorm hits the airport and badly damages your airplane tomorrow, how much money do you want the insurance company to give you,” he asks. Larry always puts the loss in terms of non-movement type of damage because he says none of us ever expects, or can even imagine, crashing our airplanes. But we know weather can sure bust them up on the ground. In fact, about half of all aircraft insurance claims are for “non movement” losses. The weather analogy helps remove emotion from the discussion.

The market vale of my airplane—like nearly all airplanes—is less than it was a year ago, and certainly a lot less than five or 10 years ago. But the cost of repairs has gone up. And I have added a lot of advanced avionics over the last few years. And one engine is nearly new from the factory. And on and on. If my airplane were a total loss I could certainly find another Baron to buy, but I couldn’t find one that exactly “replaces” what I have.

So, if I don’t buy enough hull coverage and that big storm does hit the airport, the insurance company won’t pay me enough to fix my airplane. They’ll pay me the agreed on amount of hull coverage and that’s it. But if I buy enough hull coverage to be sure the airplane can be repaired the decision to “total” the airplane is mine because the insurance company pays the agreed on amount.

Larry compares aircraft hull coverage to insuring your home. We all know home prices have plunged, but home repair costs have not. If you under insure your house and it is damaged you still need to have it repaired even though the “market” value has gone down.

There is, however, a limit to how much above market value underwriters will insure because of the concern about “moral hazard”. If your airplane is worth much more as a wreck than it is to you or anyone else, that could create the temptation to intentionally damage it and that’s a moral hazard.

Insuring for a higher hull value will, of course, cost more in premiums. But the ratio between premium cost and insured value is not constant. It will cost more dollars per thousand to insure for a lower value than it does for a higher hull value because the underwriters have to get a minimum to accept any risk. So if you insure your airplane for what you calculate a big repair will cost you will be paying less per unit of coverage than if you insure only for today’s deflated market value.

I was just by the shop the other day and a beautifully maintained Cessna 310 was sitting there with bent props and a scraped belly. It happens. But the shop manager was telling me the airplane was under insured and it looked grim for the owner. Here was an airplane that was clearly loved as an individual, not a type. A repair would be very expensive, but would return the airplane to the same good condition it was before the accident. That 310 reinforced Larry’s message to me—insure to repair, not to replace.

What About Portable GPS?

July 20, 2011

I was flying along the other day when the controller called a Bonanza pilot on the frequency. “I see that you have filed a slant uniform but do you have some sort of GPS or something you could use to fly direct to XYZ?” the controller asked.

The controller had acknowledged that the Bonanza did not have an IFR approved RNAV system onboard or the pilot would not have filed slant uniform as the equipment suffix. But the controller, trying to be helpful, was dropping the biggest hint that it would be okay for the Bonanza pilot to accept a direct en route clearance if he had some sort of navigator.

I was hoping the Bonanza pilot would understand the situation, say thanks, and head off direct to his destination. But instead he launched into a long description of the portable navigation system—complete with detailed moving map display—he had in the cockpit.

The controller tired again by repeating the clearance offer of direct to the destination. But the pilot of the Bonanza declined saying “my portable system is not IFR approved.”

By now I’m sure the controller was chomping big chunks out of his tongue as he told the Bonanza pilot to “fly heading 000 until receiving XYZ.”

What we had were two people trying their best to be helpful. The controller wanted to help the Bonanza pilot shave a few miles off of his trip, and the Bonanza pilot was determined to remain within the regulations as he understood them.

The reality is that controllers know pilots are flying around with all sorts of portable navigation devices, many of them with accuracy and capability equal to, or even beyond certified systems. Portable systems can show satellite weather, moving maps with all airway, VOR and airport information, and some even have terrain warning built in. There are mounting devices for the popular portable systems that allow a pilot to “plug them in” so they function very much like avionics that are permanently installed.

For en route navigation portable GPS systems provide all the accuracy, precision and reliability that we need, and controllers know it. That’s why they routinely offer direct clearances even if the equipment suffix letter the pilot filed with his flight plan does not show RNAV capability.

For controllers issuing a direct clearance to an airplane in radar contact is really the same as issuing a heading to fly. That’s why you’ll often have a controller ask you for the heading to your destination, or to another point along your route. You read back the heading from your navigator—certified or otherwise—and he clears you to fly that heading. Everybody is happy and no rules are broken or even bent.

Using a non-approved navigation system to fly an IFR approach is another matter, even though many portable GPS units store approach procedures, and even approach charts, in their data bases. An instrument approach takes us close to terrain and obstructions and the precision of a navigation system needs to have been demonstrated before relying on it to miss the ground by only a few hundred feet.

Navigating en route where terrain clearance at approved altitudes is large has none of the risks of flying an approach. And en route separation for airplanes flying direct is provided by radar, not precise flying of a published route so small deviations from a true direct path do not compromise lateral separation.

Pilots, like the one I overheard in the Bonanza, are worried that somebody is going to bust them for accepting a direct en route clearance while using an unapproved navigator.. They shouldn’t. The controllers know how things work, they’re not out to get us, they just want to be helpful and keep traffic flowing smoothly.

The only rule the Bonanza pilot could have broken in this situation is to have filed an equipment suffix indicating that he had approved equipment that wasn’t there. That is a particularly grievous offense when it comes to RVSM, and the FAA has cracked down on pilots who either indicate they have RVSM certification on their flight plan, or accept a clearance into RVSM airspace without having the certification and without telling the controller.

Unlike a direct clearance that involves wide lateral separation from other IFR aircraft, flying in RVSM airspace offers only 1,000 foot vertical separation, and that’s not much room for error at high altitudes where altimeter errors in non-approved systems are more likely.

An important issue for FltPlan.com users is to go into your aircraft profile and update the equipment list if something changes, particularly if your approval for RVSM changes. If you don’t keep your aircraft profile up to date you could be telling the FAA lies that it really does care about. It’s best to enter the correct equipment using the “A/C ICAO DATA” button that is on the bottom left side of the FltPlan.com main menu screen. Simply click on every type of approved equipment you have onboard and FltPlan.com will automatically translate that to the proper ICAO equipment designations to file each time with your flight plan.

If you have been accurate in filing your flight plan and the controller offers a direct en route clearance, take it.

Stearman and FltPlan.com – a Perfect Match

July 15, 2011

FltPlan.com is designed to meet the requirements of IFR flying, but the system has so much capability and flexibility it was up to the task of planning a Stearman flight half way across the country.

My friend Jack Pelton, recently retired as chairman, president and CEO of Cessna, bought a Stearman that was based in the Boston area. Jack lives in Wichita. The mission was to ferry the old biplane trainer back to his home base on, of all places, Stearman Field that is on the northeast side of Wichita.

Jack has been a dedicated user of FltPlan.com for years and when I saw him last weekend before the big trip he had already used the aircraft profile section of FltPlan.com to enter the cruise, fuel flow and other data for the Stearman. I bet there aren’t many airplane profiles in FltPlan.com with 75 knot cruise speeds, or was that 75 mph?

But Jack wasn’t sure how he could use FltPlan.com to find potential fuel stops for such a slow airplane with such short legs. The answer, of course, is the “Quick Info” button at the top of the list of options on the left side of the FltPlan.com main menu page.

One of the many extremely useful features of Quick Info is fuel stop planning. To start a Quick Info briefing you enter your departure and ultimate destination. You see direct distance between the points, and the worst, best and average winds along the route for the date you are planning. If the flight is close, you also see forecast winds in addition to the historic winds.

Further down the Quick Info page is the intermediate fuel stop planning function. You select how long you want to fly to a fuel stop. FltPlan.com has used the most accurate available winds—either historic or current forecast—to convert flying time into distance. Select how long you want to fly, hit the “check for fuel stops button” and up pops a list of suitable airports located approximately that distance into your trip.

The airport information for each potential fuel stop is complete with all of the details of runways, ATC information and so on. And if the FBOs on the field have entered the data, you can see fuel prices, too. These days the fuel price is an extremely important criteria for any pilot selecting a fuel stop so please, any FBO operator, keep your fuel prices up to date on FltPlan.com.

If you’re wondering, it took Jack 16 flying hours over a route of 1,273.3 nm to get the Stearman from Plymouth, Mass., to Stearman Field in Wichita. Total fuel burn was 181 gallons and eight quarts of oil went through the Continental radial engine. The trip required six legs over two days, all VFR, of course. Jack told me it was a “once in a lifetime experience.” I think once would be enough for me, too.

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