Category: Get Your Pilots License


Stepping down in automation—the real lesson for children of the magenta line

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Warren “Van” Vanderburgh was an extraordinary pilot. Twenty seven years in the Air Force, 14 times Top Gun, and 32 years at American Airlines—the sort of guy you might want to pick up a few pointers from. In 1996, Van was tasked by American Airlines to address the number of accidents, incidents, and violations that looked to be caused by “Automation Dependency.” A term probably not ever used before. In April of 1997, Van held a class at American Airlines Training Academy in Dallas, Texas, titled “Children of the Magenta Line.” The class was videotaped and is available on YouTube. Twenty three years after it was recorded, Children of the Magenta Line is still a very valuable training session and worth reviewing regularly.

hqdefault 300x225 - Stepping down in automation—the real lesson for children of the magenta line
Van Vanderburgh was an accomplished pilot and a brilliant instructor.

What is Automation Dependency and where did this issue come from? Very likely the Boeing 757 played a major role. First put into commercial operation by Eastern Airlines in 1983, Boeing delivered 1,050 757 models between 1981 and 2004. The pilots at Eastern referred to it as the Electric Jet. It was the first commercial aircraft to have a Flight Management System and Electronic Instruments. Pilots transitioning from the DC-8, DC-9, and 727 had their hands full just getting through the training program. Many washed out and others just elected to go back to the steam gauges. A rather senior 727 captain friend of mine described his first week of training as, “I felt like a dog watching TV.”

If you managed to finally check out on the 757, the next task was to figure out how to safely fly it around the system without major incident. With two brand new pilots in the cockpit of the Electric Jet and a futuristic-looking Flight Management System (FMS), it was a job just loading the thing properly and getting underway. Once airborne, the transition from actually flying the plane to knowing which buttons to push would ultimately lead to another new term: “what’s it doing now?”

This was likely repeated several times during the flight. There always seemed to be confusion as to who was to push the buttons which frequently lead to both pilots being heads down. One pilot was trying to correct an error the other pilot made, or make an entry that the other guy couldn’t figure out how to do. It was not long before the hazards of automation started to become clear.

New procedures were developed at each airline as to how to manage the various cockpit tasks. A common procedure was for the pilot flying to make the entries and the pilot not flying to verbally verify the entries; this helped substantially but the safety record still needed some work.

Enter Van Vanderburgh and the American Airlines Training Department. Van and his group analyzed accidents, incidents, and violations and determined that 68% of them were caused by automation mismanagement. They determined that pilots flying the new automated jets were becoming “Automation Dependent Pilots.” One of Van’s slides defines such a pilot as one who does not select the proper level of automation for the task and loses situational awareness which is frequently proceeded by task saturation.

In Van’s presentation he describes three levels of automation:

  • The pilot manually flying the aircraft.
  • The pilot using the flight director, autopilot, and autopilot modes to fly the aircraft for a short period of time. For example: Heading select, Flight Level Change, Vertical Speed, Indicated Airspeed, etc.
  • The pilot using the FMS to command the autopilot to fly the aircraft for hours at a time.

So, what is the appropriate level of automation?

G1000 PFD 300x197 - Stepping down in automation—the real lesson for children of the magenta line
When in doubt, step it down a level or two in automation.

This is the meat of the subject where we as pilots today, 23 years after Van’s presentation, still struggle. The basic concept is that when things go wrong or get complicated, step down a level in automation.

Consider the following…

You are on a Vnav descent and navigating in GPS, Nav mode selected. You get a reroute; type-type-enter-select new airway, enter-then direct-enter-enter. What vertical mode would you likely be in? Probably Pitch. Not good, what to do? Step down a level in automation first by selecting Vertical Speed and maybe heading if appropriate, then enter the re-route.

What about a traffic alert that requires evasive action? Would Vertical Speed be the best choice? Heading select maybe? How about stepping down three levels to hand-flying the aircraft as necessary.

A last-minute runway change with the airport insight? How much button pushing is required? Step down three levels and just fly the plane.

And think about this: there are two pilots in that 757, but how many are in our single engine or light twin, Technically Advanced Aircraft (TAA)? We are taking on the job of two type-rated pilots, technically both captains, when flying single-pilot IFR. Is the G1000/Perspective system any less complicated than the Honeywell system in a Boeing? I flew the 757 for 18 years and I can tell you that although the aircraft systems are quite different and much more complex than our typical general aviation aircraft, the FMS entries are not that much different. Also, consider that you have no one backing you up for the entries that you make. In our planes, “garbage in” does not necessarily result in “garbage out.” More like “splatter.”

Techniques to mitigate automation dependency and the single pilot issue:

  • Slow down. As pilots become more proficient with the FMS keyboard they tend to go faster with the entries. For example, Direct-enter-enter should be direct-enter-VERIFY-enter.
  • Be your own copilot. This is a very effective technique that is hard to get experienced pilots to follow. In airline operations, the pilot not flying is required to point his finger at the autopilot/flight director status display (scoreboard) to make sure that what is displayed is what was selected, then verbally state what he sees. Do this yourself, point at the scoreboard, and state out loud what you see. You will be surprised at how many times you will catch an error. (Like being in heading for five minutes when you should have been in Nav or the vertical mode somehow ended up in Pitch).
  • In VFR weather, turn your autopilot off and hand fly the aircraft using the Flight Director and FMS inputs. This will force you to hand fly what you have entered, improving your scan, and sharpen your flying skills.

Van Vandenburgh passed on a few years ago, but his very informative instructional videos, broadcasted from the American Airlines Training Academy, live on and are still available on YouTube. They include:

Friday Photo: Puget Sound fun

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Puget Sound - Friday Photo: Puget Sound fun

Click on image for full size.

The view: Hood Canal, near Bremerton Airport (PWT)

The pilot: Kevin Knight

The airplane: 1967 Mooney M20F

The mission: Local flight

The memory: I shot this with my iPhone at 3500 ft—Puget Sound fun!

High energy approaches: student edition

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Recently, a video of a Cessna 172 crash into a hangar after landing in Canada went viral. The student pilot got out of it with minor injuries, but the fact that he was just another one saved by Cessna’s generous engineers underscores a critical point in training that might have been overlooked. Once again, just as in any safety case, the saints are not important; the miracle is what really matters. It is a systemic issue across the industry, and it has to be mitigated, like any threat.

The difference, though, is that this threat is an essential characteristic of any airplane. Even autoland systems are limited to certain crosswind components because automation too has its boundaries. So human pilots must compensate for these limits—we can’t afford to not address this subject emphatically from the beginning.

Landing on solo flight 300x170 - High energy approaches: student edition
That centerline is there for a reason.

We have talked before here in Air Facts about crosswind landings, so I will not bother getting into it deeply again. Everybody knows what to do, and in the Cessna 172—or any similar model–a sideslip must be accomplished before touchdown for several reasons. The main point on this Canada case, or in another solo flight that veered left of the runway last year and also went viral, is that both students likely failed in using the rudder pedals.

Just because tricycle gear airplanes are much simpler to land does not mean they are inherently centerline stable. So, even light wind components–and I say this from my own scary experience during a takeoff with my wife and mother onboard many years ago–can push the airplane onto the runway edges quite decisively. It is the pilot’s responsibility to keep it on the centerline, and this must be addressed from the first hour of training. It is not just the wind, but P-factor, torque, etc. So yes, a rudder (at least a right one) must always be applied.

Nevertheless, since no further investigation will probably reveal much more, we will take the videos to do a kind of debriefing on ourselves. The pilots involved learned it already the hard way, so let’s not waste their lesson and generosity. Yes, I am not that critical of cameras on solo flights, although I think it is wise to save them for after the private pilot checkride at least.

Both crashes started the same way: a high energy approach. We’ve been talking about this in the airlines for years and we train on them in the simulator quite often. Yet once again, it looks like general aviation is not being as cautious. The balked landing training we make every six months on a widebody Level D is exactly that: a deliberate (for training purpose, obviously), high energy approach that smashes the airplane into the ground in a way that tends to make it bounce. So the trainee must assume the controls once it happens and save the day–usually by getting power in and initiating a go around.

In general, the idea is to create resilience by the mechanics of the maneuver. Once you do it many times, you won’t have to think much if it happens to you in real life; you will recognize it quickly and react accordingly. This is the way we address time critical failures or maneuvers, since “thinking” is a luxury we won’t have in these situations once they develop.

What we can think of, though, is how to avoid them altogether. A high energy approach will not start during the few seconds of the flare, but possibly even in the top of descent, half an hour earlier. And even in a small single engine piston in the traffic pattern, the pilot will have more than a couple minutes to realize and fix its energy state before landing.

I won’t get too technical, but let’s think of typical approach speeds in a Cessna 172 and compare them with any airliner. I’ve said this before, maybe not here–although you’ve heard it from other authors here at Air Facts—but the way you land a light GA aircraft is fundamentally different from the way you land an airliner or jets in general. And the key is the amount of energy and how to bleed if off during the flare.

AppKSUA 300x228 - High energy approaches: student edition
A bounced landing almost always starts from a high energy approach.

Just to start with, airliners have what we call Vref, which is a weight-based speed. Since they vary greatly with the weight–in the Dreamliner alone, we are talking about over 40 tons during normal operations–they must be calculated for every landing. Every 4,000 pounds or so will make a knot of difference in the landing speed, and on top of that, we put a five knot buffer, which is called Vapp.

So during final approach, in full landing configuration, you are going to be on Vapp and transition during the flare to ideally touchdown on Vref and power in idle. These five knots–and no more or less–should be bled during the final seconds of the flight, below 50 ft, by seeking the correct attitude. If that is not set, you might find yourself with too much energy and a bounce. If you bleed too much, you can easily have a tail strike, just to start the package of a bad day in the office.

But the fundamental difference from a GA aircraft approach speed is not the weight itself: generally speaking, a jet Vref is based on 1.3 times the stall speed. So, at the moment you touch down, you are 30% above the stall speed. And that excess third is the key for a smooth and safe ride. It is not too much, but not too little either.

When it comes to a Cessna 172 it is another world. You are approaching at 65-70 knots for a normal landing. Yet your stall speed is much lower, less than 50 knots even at maximum weight. So you have far more than the stall speed during approach. Do not get fooled: you are already in a high energy state and you are doing the right thing. The key is to keep it that way, on the target speed, until you start the flare.

Once again, the Skyhawk is very easy to fly, and that’s why over 40,000 have been built, making it the most popular civilian aircraft ever. Nevertheless, it is not autonomous—it needs an acting pilot in command to fly and land properly. Once you cross the threshold, start bringing the power back and the nose up accordingly. Remember, you may have half of your speed to bleed before you touch down. On top of that, you definitely don’t want to touch down flat, and in order to get the main gear on the ground first, you need to be slow enough.

A common fear students have is to stall during the flare, and to convince them they are very far from it during the approach, the slow flight dirty maneuver is a great tool. Once they get the concept, it’s a matter of practicing. Getting to the ground with the right amount of energy–which in the Skyhawk is touching down near the stall speed after approaching at nearly twice that–is the start of a nice and safe ground roll.

And of course, do not forget the rudder pedals. Ever.

A less-than-graceful arrival

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During the Summer of 1966 I was working at the Philadelphia Seaplane Base and accumulating hours towards my Commercial certificate. I worked at the seaplane base while attending college and in 1964 I had acquired a 1939 Aeronca Chief seaplane project. I finally had it completed and flying by the summer of 1966. She hadn’t flown since 1947.

I planned to do the required long cross-country flight by taking a week at the end of the summer and heading north. My ultimate destination was Greenville, Maine, on Moosehead Lake.

The pre-war Chief was a good little floatplane. She didn’t get off the water as soon as the J-3 I had been flying, but was 10 to 15 mph faster. Also, having a door on both sides was a plus for docking.

first flight enhanced reduced 300x171 - A less-than-graceful arrival
Ready to make the grand arrival…

Labor Day weekend found me heading to Highgate Springs, Vermont, the first overnight on my multi-day trip. My fuel stops were the seaplane base at Peekskill, NY, Garnseys Airport on the Hudson River north of Albany, and Westport, NY, on the southwest side of Lake Champlain.

The first two stops went fine. The stop at Westport would be at a marina where I would be able to get some white marine gas. Although not by the rules, this was somewhat common back then with floatplanes if avgas wasn’t available.

It was a beautiful day and as I taxied in I noted a nice open dock with no obstructions. Not being a seaplane base, you were own your own for docking. Not a big deal—I had ideal conditions. I just needed to taxi up, cut the switch at the appropriate time, drift alongside the dock, and step off. A piece of cake.

Well, I stepped down onto the float and slipped right off into the lake while grazing my head on the dock on the way down. Of course, being a holiday weekend, there was a nice size crowd watching this fiasco.

As I came up for air I saw my Chief drifting away, so I swam over and doggy paddled it back to the dock. The feeling of humiliation was overwhelming.

The manager helped me out of the water and was initially concerned about my bleeding forehead. When it was obvious that it was just a little cut he started to laugh and said this was one of the best and funniest things they had seen in years. He joked that he would pay somebody to stage such an event.

They really treated me well and loaned me a pair of goggles so I could dive down and retrieve my glasses, which were in about eight feet of water. Darned if I didn’t find them.

Go or No Go: smoky San Carlos

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The overall weather for your flight today from Scottsdale, Arizona (SDL), to San Carlos, California (SQL), looks excellent—no fronts, no storms, no ice, hardly any clouds—with one exception. Huge wildfires have covered much of Northern California with smoke. That means widespread IFR conditions near your destination. Can you make the trip?

The flight should take about 3:30 in your Cirrus SR22, given the less-than-direct route and 12,000 ft. cruising altitude that are required for avoiding terrain. That’s a long trip in this airplane, but certainly within its capabilities; you should arrive in the Bay Area with about 20 gallons of fuel remaining, which is more than your one hour personal minimum. However, the need to fly to an alternate might cut into that reserve. You’re instrument rated and current.

Departure time is planned for 9:00am PDT (1600Z). Read the weather briefing below and then add a comment sharing your decision.


Your trip today will take you north out of the Phoenix area, then west towards Bakersfield, before turning northwest towards the San Francisco area.

SDL to SQL - Go or No Go: smoky San Carlos

The surface analysis shows hardly anything to worry about, with no organized weather system throughout the Southwest.

SDL surface analysis - Go or No Go: smoky San Carlos

The prog chart shows more of the same, with generally fair weather continuing throughout the day and into tomorrow.

SDL 24 hour - Go or No Go: smoky San Carlos


There’s nothing to look at on the radar today, but the satellite image shows the smoke covering much of California. It’s clearly not vertically developed, but it is all over the coast.

SQL sat - Go or No Go: smoky San Carlos

Graphical Forecasts

The Graphical AIRMET shows what you would expect—good weather except for restricted visibilities. The unusual FU stands for smoke.

AIRMETs - Go or No Go: smoky San Carlos

These weather conditions are where the Graphical Forecast for Aviation (GFA) can add some detail. First, the surface forecast, which shows widespread low visibility near your destination.

SDL surface forecast - Go or No Go: smoky San Carlos

Then there’s the cloud forecast, valid for about an hour and a half before your arrival. It shows clear skies except along the coast, where tops are low and ceilings are forecast to be around 1000 ft.

SDL cloud forecast - Go or No Go: smoky San Carlos

Text weather

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Will conditions allow you to make a safe approach and landing at San Carlos? First the good news: your departure airport is reporting excellent conditions and it’s forecast to stay that way.

SDL weather - Go or No Go: smoky San Carlos

En route, the weather is good VFR until you get north of Los Angeles. At your destination, conditions are definitely IFR—in fact, they are below approach minimums right now (which are 900 and 1 1/4 for the RNAV (GPS) Z to runway 30). The nearest TAF (for SFO) suggests things will get better as the day goes on.

SQL weather - Go or No Go: smoky San Carlos

Given the current weather at SQL, the TAF at SFO, and common sense, you need an IFR alternate today. Unfortunately, there aren’t many good options. Smoke has brought ceilings and visibility down all over California. Here are three nearby international airports, all reporting conditions that are above approach minimums, but not by much.

local weather SFO - Go or No Go: smoky San Carlos

The story is the same almost everywhere within 100 miles. In fact, Bakersfield is the nearest airport with truly VFR weather right now (clear skies and 3 miles visibility with haze), but that’s 200 miles away.

A few PIREPs offer the last details. As expected, tops are very low but so are ceilings.

SDL PIREPs - Go or No Go: smoky San Carlos

Decision time

For a fairly benign weather day, there’s actually a lot going on here. First things first: if the TAF holds, you can fly to your destination and land safely. Easy. Legally, you need an alternate and while none of the airports around San Carlos qualify right now based on the METARs, they do based on the TAFs. In fact, you could wait half an hour longer and eliminate the need for an alternate altogether. The only minor issue is that a Presidential TFR is going active early in the afternoon in Phoenix, so you’d definitely like to be airborne in the next two hours or so.

The legwork for a “legal” IFR alternate is beside the point, really. When you arrive at SQL, you’ll have enough fuel to shoot the approach, miss, and divert to a nearby airport (there are plenty around with precision approaches, including SFO, OAK, SJC). Given all that, you’ll still have the FAA-mandated 45 minutes of fuel on board, so you’re legal. But you won’t have much more fuel than that, so if conditions happen to go down, you have few good options and no solid VFR weather within range. And then of course there’s the hassle factor—San Carlos is much more convenient for your ultimate destination than the big airports at San Jose or San Francisco, not to mention the higher costs.

Is it a go or a no-go? Add your comment below.

Stop calling it the impossible turn

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Pilots love a good debate, and some topics seem to come in and out of fashion like bell bottoms. Right now the wars over lean of peak and angle of attack indicators have cooled (thankfully), but the war over “the impossible turn” seems to be heating up. In the last few months I’ve seen multiple articles, videos, and forum threads on the subject. It’s fun to debate, but what problem are we trying to solve here?

As my 8th grade English teacher always said, we first have to define our terms, and there we find the start of trouble. The impossible turn is actually quite a vague phrase. It generally refers to a low altitude, 180-degree turn back to the departure airport after experiencing an engine failure on takeoff. The classic scenario involves a sudden power loss below 1000 ft. AGL, where the pilot feels an overwhelming urge to crank and bank their way back to the safety of a runway. There’s not much margin for error, especially at low altitude, and if it’s not done properly the result can be fatal.

I appreciate the desire to make an impression, and that’s clearly what safety advocates are trying to do with their catchy phrase—if the engine quits on takeoff, resist the urge to turn. It’s impossible. There might be a perfectly good field right in front of the airplane, and landing there is easier and safer than trying to get back to the airport.

But while this may be good advice for a new pilot, very few things in aviation are quite so black and white. Such binary language may discourage a pilot from ever trying a turnback, which is flat out wrong. Sometimes, returning to the airport is the safest option and if you’ve never practiced it or thought about it there’s no way you’ll pull it off successfully.

MDW overhead 300x203 - Stop calling it the impossible turn
Taking off from Midway doesn’t leave you many good options?

Think about some urban airports that are surrounded on all sides by housing or offices. Chicago’s Midway Airport, Atlanta’s Peachtree-DeKalb Airport, and Dallas’s Addison Airport all come to mind. On takeoff from one of these airports, an engine failure a mile off the end of the runway leaves you with no good options. Should you automatically exclude the large airport area with four runways and instead try to shoehorn the airplane into a residential neighborhood? That hardly seems safer.

I believe pilots make the impossible turn successfully every year, but you rarely hear about them because good news rarely makes the headlines. Here’s just one example of a turnback in a single engine piston airplane that worked out quite well. It was done at low altitude, and we can all second guess the decision, but it’s clear that the turnback was successful. The pilot walked away.

Glider pilots practice this maneuver all the time, simulating a rope break on departure. When I earned my glider rating about 15 years ago, I remember being shocked at how low we could make a safe return to the airport in such a situation. In many scenarios, the first step was to turn left, count a few seconds, then turn back around 270 degrees to the right in order to line up on final. Those few seconds felt like an eternity, but with proper planning and technique, it worked out. Granted, gliders have highly efficient wings compared to a Cessna, but it’s clear that the impossible turn isn’t impossible at all. We simply have to know when it’s safe and when it’s not.

This brings up the critical question: how low is too low? The correct answer varies from airplane to airplane and even airport to airport (a large airport with multiple runways means a shorter turn is required to find pavement). About 1000 ft. AGL is a good starting point, but it could be as low as 600 ft. or as high as 2500 ft.

The only way to know for sure is to practice, but make sure to do it from a safe altitude and with an instructor onboard. This is no time for steep turns at 200 ft. AGL. Every year during recurrent training for the Pilatus PC-12 I fly, I practice turnbacks from a variety of altitudes and airplane configurations. I’ve done this both in a full motion simulator at Flight Safety and in the airplane with an experienced PC-12 instructor in the right seat, and I never fail to learn something new.

In the airplane, one option is to simulate a takeoff by flying down the runway at slow speed but from 1000-2000 ft. AGL. Climb out as you normally would, and at a predetermined altitude pull the power back. Make your turn and set a hard deck to create an airport in the sky—if you’re not “on the runway” by 1000 ft. AGL it’s time to abandon the maneuver and go around.

Over the years I’ve come away with some important lessons for this maneuver. First, and most importantly, the initial reaction should almost always be to push. If you’re climbing out at Vy, you will likely be at a high pitch angle and without much excess energy. The human instinct is to pull back, but doing so in this situation can quickly lead to a stall. I tell myself to push forward and reduce the angle of attack before doing anything else. At the very least, this buys time.

Next, it’s critical that you make the turn aggressively. That doesn’t mean dangerously—you’re low to the ground and at slow speed, so you want to be very careful of an accelerated stall—but if you only bank 10 degrees you’ll never make it back. In the Pilatus, at least a 30-degree bank seems to be about right, but that feels like a lot when you’re low to the ground. Don’t let the airplane overbank and don’t pull back to tighten the turn.

Finally, wind matters. This is obvious from a physics standpoint, but it’s often overlooked in the real world. Taking off in calm winds might mean your turnback leaves you far away from the runway, while a 20-knot headwind can leave you right on top of the airport when you roll back out. In some practice scenarios with strong headwinds on takeoff, the biggest issue is getting stopped on the runway after turning back. The headwind keeps you close to the airport as you climb, but then pushes you when you descend. To avoid running off the far end of the runway, full flaps and even a slip may be required. Solving this problem simply takes practice.

172 on short final 300x191 - Stop calling it the impossible turn
Can you make it back?

There’s no doubt that this is a maximum performance maneuver, but then again a catastrophic engine failure is an emergency situation that demands decisive action. With planning and practice, the impossible turn becomes just another tool in the bag, one that can be invaluable if used under the right circumstances. Many open-minded pilots now recognize this, from Captain Brian Schiff (who forcefully advocates for “the possible turn”) to the FAA (who updated their guidance in Advisory Circular 61-83).

The key is to have a plan that you brief before every takeoff (even if it’s just to yourself). You have to know what your options are and be spring-loaded to react properly, given the conditions. For me, this briefing always considers a few essential things:

  • Runway length: when can we just land back on the runway? A 10,000 ft. runway gives you more options straight ahead
  • Airport environment: is there a parallel or intersecting runway that is more convenient to turn towards?
  • Surrounding terrain: are there any good options besides the airport or conversely, are there any obstacles to avoid?
  • Wind: I like to turn into the wind when possible, since this requires a less aggressive turn to be lined up on final
  • Ceiling and visibility: do we need to set up any avionics to find our way back to the runway if it’s low IFR (synthetic vision helps a lot here)?

This doesn’t have to take long, but a typical briefing for me might be, “We’ll be taking off on runway 21L and climbing out on runway heading; below 1500 feet MSL an engine failure means we’ll land straight ahead in that open field; above 1500 feet MSL we can make a right turn into the wind to land on runway 3L; VFR weather means we’ll do it visually.”

Also, don’t get locked into landing straight ahead or turning around. Sometimes there are other options that should be part of your takeoff briefing. For example, Cirrus pilots typically set a minimum altitude for deployment of the whole airplane parachute system (CAPS). In many cases this is a better idea than either a turnback or a forced landing on a road or parking lot. The point is, you should use all the tools at your disposal to give yourself options, but make sure you think about those options from the calm of the taxiway and not at 800 feet with a quiet engine.

Impossible turn? Hardly. Calling it the possible turn is more accurate, but I prefer “the unforgiving turn.” Like an ILS to minimums, it can be done safely with planning, practice, and discipline.

Friday Photo: thunderstorm at sunset

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IMG 0480 - Friday Photo: thunderstorm at sunset

Click on image for full size.

The view: Storm cloud

The pilot: Harvey Swift

The airplane: Boeing 737

The mission: Flying passengers from Houston Hobby to Dallas.

The memory: It was a very stormy day—we had to fly west out of Houston about 100 miles to get around a line of weather between Houston and Dallas. I spotted this storm cloud and managed to get this great photo.

Want to share your “Friday Photo?” Send your photo and description (using the format above) to:

How the Reno Air Races saved me

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It was disappointing to learn that the 2020 STIHL National Championship Air Races were cancelled. The organizers cited concern for the safety and health of race fans over the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions on large scale events. While the reason is understandable, it is nonetheless a big disappointment to race fans and aviation enthusiasts, particularly for me.

An early career change took me in an unplanned direction away from aviation. After 24 years in the industrial diamond business a customer from Hayward who knew of my aviation background invited me to join his “September family” in Reno for the air races. After so many years, I thought this would be a one-time visit. However, this courtesy visit blossomed into fourteen years of annual pilgrimages and a rekindling of my passion for aviation.

Flight in L39 300x225 - How the Reno Air Races saved me
Flying in the Jet Class at Reno sometimes means speeds of over 500 mph.

As a teenager, my love of aviation lead me to study aeronautical engineering at The Ohio State University, with a private pilot license earned along the way. Searching for a flight test position, the Navy offered just such an opportunity, including flying in jets. It was an easy decision and I was off to Patuxent River in Maryland, home of the Naval Air Test Center. I joined the Carrier Suitability Flight Test Branch, which was tasked with testing aircraft carrier catapults, arrested landings, and automatic carrier landing systems. Flights in F-4s, A-6s, and A-7s—but mostly F-14s—was a thrill never to be forgotten, especially cats and traps off and on the carrier.

My pilot training continued with a commercial rating and instrument ticket. This led to a flying job selling RNAV equipment for general aviation and military aircraft. After a couple of years the company was struggling and with the start of a family, I answered an ad in the local paper for a technical marketing position. GE had a secretive industrial diamond business and it was a perfect fit. There was never a conscious decision to leave aviation, but this worldwide business with fascinating peers and customers was alluring. A decade later I left to start my own business in the same field. This new challenge became my focus of all my energy and unfortunately aviation faded to the background.

The initial invite and trip to Reno fourteen years ago made me realize how much I really enjoyed aviation. I was hooked! With each passing year Reno became more enjoyable, but still as a spectator.

Andy Findlay 300x225 - How the Reno Air Races saved me
Reno is really about the people, not the airplanes.

The Reno Air Races are unique and there is nothing like it anywhere. When I mention the races most assume it is like Red Bull Air Races, which generated lots of media exposure. There are six different race classes, but I developed an affinity for the Sport and Jet classes and became friends with many of the pilots and their families. The racers call the annual Reno Races the gathering of the September family, and it is truly that atmosphere.

The Jet Class includes jets such as the Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros and L-29 Delfin, de Havilland D.100 Vampire, Fouga CM.170 Magister, Soko G2 Galeb, and others. Sport Class aircraft include the Lancair Legacy and Super Legacy, Nemesis NXT, Super Glasair III and Glasair II, Thunder Mustang, Rocket and RVs. Racers compete for position early in the week and then race in Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Medallion heats around an 8-mile course at Reno/Stead Airport 16 miles northwest of Reno. The fastest jets top out over 500 mph only 50 feet off the ground, while the top Sport Class racers are at a blistering pace exceeding 400 mph.

The annual pilgrimages to Reno continued until one year my friend said, “Pat, you have to start flying again!” My initial reaction was that 25 years had been far too long to be away from flying. My brain was engaged, though, and I thought well maybe it isn’t so farfetched!

So it was off to a local flight school to see if I could still fly a Cessna 172. After a few flights, I was back in the flying game, rebuilding skills. Technology had advanced quite a bit over the years and a decision was required whether to relearn steam gauges or jump right into a glass panel, which won out. That probably wasn’t the easiest decision, but liberal use of the “Direct To” button on the G1000 helped pave the way to learn how to operate the system. The FAA regulations posed another challenge between what I had forgotten and all the new information to learn. Early on I thought it was just too much, but persistence paid off and it all started coming together.

Cessna 400 on ramp at SLC 300x225 - How the Reno Air Races saved me
A trip to Reno eventually led to buying an airplane and reconnecting with general aviation.

Just getting back into the flying game wasn’t enough and upgraded skills became part of the plan. That led to a multiengine rating, tailwheel endorsement, seaplane rating, aerobatic training, and now a focus on the challenges of formation flying and aerobatic competition.

The rental planes were fine initially but those needed an upgrade as well. Having a fair amount of Mooney time led me to a search for that plane as well as Bonanza, Cirrus, and Columbia aircraft. I found a gem of a 2008 Cessna (Columbia) 400 and have accumulated 1,000 hours of flight time in it. It is such a sweet plane to fly and I enjoy every opportunity I get to fly it, especially on the coast-to-coast trips. The recent addition of an RV-8 fits the bill for formation flying and light aerobatics.

That one unassuming, or so I thought, visit to the Reno Air Races did truly save me, from an aviation perspective. But it wasn’t only the flying that was so special, it was the people and a shared passion. Through Reno I have met many of the racers and become good friends. And not only the racers, but their families and the race fans. It truly is a “September family” and I will miss the get-together this year. If you haven’t attended the Reno Air Races, consider adding it to your calendar for September 2021. If you love aviation, you won’t be disappointed.

My life changed totally after returning to aviation. So if you haven’t flown in a while, at least consider giving it a try. I think you will enjoy the challenge and fun that only taking to the skies can bring to those who have “slipped the surly bonds of earth,” to quote the poem High Flight by John Gillespie Magee, Jr!

Horses and airplanes: another rewarding Young Eagle flight

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It started with a phone call from a fellow teacher at one our middle schools. She had a student, Kayla, who was interested in aviation, and since I taught aviation at one of our county high schools, could I arrange a flight for Kayla?

This was easy since I was an EAA Young Eagle pilot for our local EAA Chapter 1240 and had provided many youths their first ride in a small aircraft. We set the date and time.

It was a clear, cool, and calm morning at the Sebring Regional Airport. The Cessna 172 stood out in front of the EAA Chapter 1240 Aviation Development Center. We had been flying many young folks for our monthly EAA Young Eagles flight day. It was Kayla’s turn and we did the walk-around the aircraft as I explained all the parts and control services. Soon she was in the right seat and I climbed in and explained how I was going to start the plane and what we would do to take off and where we would go, flying over her middle school.

As we leveled off at 2,500 feet, she looked around, spotted her middle school and many other places around town that she recognized. She was having fun and didn’t appear nervous. I asked her if she would like to fly the plane. I often do this with kids on Young Eagle flights. She stiffened up and said, “No way!” I tried encouraging her to try it, but she didn’t want any part of it, so I let it go.

Kayla by airplane 300x199 - Horses and airplanes: another rewarding Young Eagle flight
There’s not much more fun than introducing a young person to aviation.

After we landed, I asked if she had a good time. Her smiles and excitement confirmed that and I asked if she wanted to fly again sometime. There was quick yes and we set the time for the following Sunday morning.

Again, we had a cool, calm, and clear morning. It was not a public Young Eagle day so I had more time to share more about the airplane and aviation with Kayla and her parents. Soon we were strapped in the aircraft and I was about to start the plane. I suddenly had an elbow blow on my side and she said, “don’t start the plane yet.” I was confused and wondered if she was getting cold feet. She then asked for me to explain every dial, switch, and display on the panel. So I went from left to right and explained everything and what it did. After I finished, she said, “OK, let’s go.”

As we took off, she was monitoring the airspeed, oil pressure, and rate of climb. She was into it, sharing what she was reading on the gauges. After reaching 2,500 feet I asked again if she wanted to fly. This time she was all in.

Before I gave her the controls, I asked a question I knew the answer to: “Kayla, you own a horse, right?”

She said yes. I then asked that when she wanted her horse to turn left or right, she would lightly lay the reins over the horse’s neck and not jerk hard on the reins, yes? She said yes and I said to her it is the same with the control yoke of an airplane. I told her I fly with just two fingers and provide a light touch on the yoke. No need to grab tight and yank on it. Just gently let the airplane know what you want it to do—just like your horse. We have all seen first time fliers grab the yoke, thinking the harder they grip the safer they are. Harsh control inputs wind up having the person chase the plane all over the sky trying to over correct the last input. It’s not fun.

So as Kayla took control, she was gentle and firm with her control. We spent the morning climbing, leveling, descending, doing turns on a point. She nailed it. There was a transfer of a skill from one format to another. I have found that many youth today have excellent hand-eye coordination from video games and other activities that help in the transition to effective control of the aircraft. We are in good hands, and now we just need more young folks to get involved in flying.

Go Goodyear—mixing it up with the blimps

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On Tuesday evenings, if the weather was decent enough for John and I to fly the Fulton Flying Club Mooney 201, we would practice instrument approaches. From the Akron VOR (ACO) there were approaches into Akron-Canton Airport, Akron-Fulton Airport, Kent State Airport, Portage County Airport in Ravenna, and Miller Airport in Deerfield. They provided the three main types of approaches that were available at almost all airports. We practiced all of them: ILS, localizer, VOR, and NDB approaches. All of these airports were within a thirty mile radius.

It was a good area for training and maintaining instrument currency. ACO VOR had a lot of traffic and required extra vigilance. Unfortunately two aircraft met there one day, resulting in four fatalities, while I lived in that area. Only one was talking to approach control. ADS-B could have prevented that.

John and I would take turns flying the approaches using only the aircraft instruments with no outside reference. One would fly and the other would watch for other aircraft. We would be in contact with Akron-Canton Approach and flying according to their instructions. This would fit us in safely with other local traffic under their control but there was also other traffic that was not under their control, so visual vigilance was necessary from the person performing watch pilot duty in the right seat of the plane.

Since we mostly flew after work and often after dark, there was not much other aircraft traffic that was not in contact with Akron-Canton approach control. At night it is easier than in daylight to see other aircraft as it is required for all aircraft to be lighted. They stand out against the dark sky unless they are below you and mix with lights on the ground.

995px Goodyear Blimp   Spirit of Innovation 300x217 - Go Goodyear—mixing it up with the blimps
When you fly near Akron, this is just part of the traffic pattern.

When flying in the Akron area in daylight, one would occasionally see one of the slow flying Goodyear blimps. Wingfoot Lake grass airport and hangar, a few miles south of Akron, was the location where Goodyear built the blimps and trained new crews. The blimps appear quite large to most people on the ground but when flying near them they do not seem as large. I had seen the German dirigible Hindenburg when I was a small boy in New Jersey. The Hindenburg was the largest aircraft ever built and a little more than four times larger than the Goodyear blimps. The blimps were certainly much larger than the plane John and I were flying when doing approach practice, but appeared small against the memory of the Hindenburg.

After flying, John and I would head home to heat our late dinners in our family microwaves. It was either what our wives had prepared that night, leftovers, or something the Stouffer family in Cleveland had whipped up in their nearby plant. Instrument flying was fairly intense so we were hungry enough to enjoy whatever we put in the microwave.

We flew weekly as often as the weather allowed. Our area had frequent opportunity for flying in clouds, in rain, and in snow, and we often did but there were times that we were grounded or chose not to fly by thunderstorms, severe turbulence, high winds, extremely low clouds, or ice. There are many sayings in aviation, one of them is, “Any fool can fly an airplane but knowing when not to is crucial.” In our area of the Great Lakes there were many times “not to.” Northeast Ohio has more overcast days than any place in the country. Weather bureau statistics verify this. We did this over several years until both John and I sold our shares in the club airplane. John retired and headed to a new home in the South. I retired and decided to build my own homebuilt kit aircraft.

We would occasionally email each other and reminisce about our many flights. Two nights, both in the fall of 1999, are still vivid in our memories and both involve blimps, maybe the same one. We got a call from Akron-Canton Approach asking us if we had seen the blimp. It was missing. We did not see it that night but the next morning we learned that we had probably flown over it on one of our approaches. It had a control malfunction and slowly spiraled to the ground, landing in treetops in Suffield about two miles from its base. No one was injured and very little damage was done.

The blimps were equipped with lighted signs that had running messages along the full side of their hulls, advertising Goodyear products. They were not something one could easily miss over your town so it was quite an effective means of advertising. Night flying was also done for TV coverage over stadiums for night sports events. They would often train crews in our area for night flying and we would see one, but usually off in the distance. Approach control kept them well separated from other traffic. That night they were not running their lighted sign and no other aircraft had seen them either.

EARLY NIGHTSIGN 300x219 - Go Goodyear—mixing it up with the blimps
The ultimate anti-collision light?

Another night earlier in the year, just as we had finished enough approach practice for the night and were returning to our base, we were both flying visually. John said there was something strange off to the left at about 11 o’clock on an intersecting path. There appeared to be lights at our altitude but too far apart to be a plane. Although we could not see clearly as it was too dark, there seemed to be a darker mass in between the lights. Approach control had not notified us of any traffic in our area either.

John said, “I’m turning on our landing light, so we can be seen better.” Almost instantly the dark mass began flashing GO GOODYEAR in twenty foot high letters! This was followed by various other running messages about how good Goodyear tires were and what was on sale at the time. Every available light on the blimp was on as well. Their cruising speed was about 45 miles an hour and ours was 180. We were on an intersecting course and not far from them. It was up to us to avoid them; they were too slow to maneuver. They had to get our attention, right now, or it would have been equally bad for both of us.

John instantly turned to the right and we missed them by about two hundred feet—which is quite close in the air at our closing speed. It’s hard not to think of that night any time John and I see the words GO GOODYEAR. We almost had GOODYEAR wrapped all around our airplane. We definitely would have gone, but it would not have been a good year.

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