Monday, January 25, 2016

Just follow the line...

As many of you know, I've been flying with a couple of guys that are either currently taking flight instruction, or who had started with a couple of lessons in the past but weren't able to keep going. When I fly with people in that kind of situation, I like to fly from the right seat and let them have the Captain's chair.  I also like to treat the flight as if it is actually a formal lesson - that's in furtherance of my long-term goal of obtaining an LSA Instructor Certification.

To rewind the clock a little bit, I have to share that I had always worried that I would not be particularly well suited to the role of instructor, my primary concern being that it would be hard for be to forget what I already know to a degree sufficient to allow me to explain relatively complex things that I personally do as a matter of routine, but that to an inexperienced pilot might be completely mind-boggling. Flying with low-time students has put that to the test, and I am pleased to announce that it isn't as big of a problem as I had thought it might be.

Then again....

I remember back in the day that I myself had difficulty understanding how to correctly enter the landing pattern at an untowered (more accurately referred to as "uncontrolled") airport. The FAA put out an advisory circular (the 'advisory' part is debatable if you're ever in an incident that was caused by ignoring the FAA's "suggestion" or "advice") in 1993 on the subject, but I found it to be somewhat less than illuminating.

You can read it yourself at this link.

 Here are a couple of the more salient passages:
a. Prior to entering the traffic pattern at an airport without an operating control tower, aircraft should avoid the flow of traffic until established on the entry leg. For example, wind and landing direction indicators can be checked while at an altitude above the traffic pattern. When the proper traffic pattern direction has been determined, the pilot should then proceed to a point well clear of the pattern before descending to the pattern altitude. 
b, Arriving aircraft should be at the appropriate traffic pattern altitude before entering the traffic pattern. Entry to the downwind leg should be at a 45-degree angle abeam the midpoint of the runway.
To be fair, while I find this image to be somewhat over-crowded and confusing, it does follow the descriptive paragraphs above, and those two concepts are pretty easy to understand anyway.

The problem for me always came down to figuring out what to do if I was approach from the "wrong" side of the runway.  If you look at point "1", it should be obvious that if I am approach the ostensibly east-west runway from the northeast, it is a trivial exercise to manage the FAA-preferred entry to the left downwind for the east-facing runway. But what if the prevailing wind direction happens to be from the west? I would need to be on the other side of the airport to make the required standard left turns to the westerly-facing runway - how do I get there?

The way that I was taught to address that scenario is to crossover the airport at midfield ("[airport name] traffic, experimental yada yada is six miles north, planning a midfield crosswind to left downwind runway 27") and turn left into the downwind.  Other variations include the very similar method of entering a true crosswind leg west of the departure end of runway 27 (in the diagram, that would be the 'base' leg shown between points "2" and "3", but it would continue south of the airport to enable a left turn onto the downwind leg), or if approaching from the east as shown in the diagram, flying an 'upwind' leg on the path labeled as 'downwind' in the diagram. Note that that choice would be particularly dangerous on a low-wind day, or if the wind is more or less perpendicular to the runway - in instances like that, it's a pilot's decision as to which direction to land. You could conceivably end up nose-to-nose with a pilot whose decision was opposite to yours.

This is an awful lot for an inexperience pilot to try to figure out 15-20 miles away from arriving at the airport to land. This turned out to be something that I could not adequately explain while in flight, so I spent quite a few hours noodling out a way to simply the process.

I eventually distilled the whole thing down to a pretty simple concept: ignoring straight-in approaches and approaches from directions perpendicular to the airport, there are only two ways the runway can present itself to an arriving airplane: it will either be diagonal with the approach end to the left, or diagonal with the approach end to the right.  The wind is also a variable, but it has no bearing (pun intentional) on how the runway looks to the pilot.

With that in mind, I was able to develop the Pattern Entry Assistant:

The usage of these is quite simple. These are printed two-sided, so one need only flip the card over to match the expected orientation on the runway. The idea is to remain at least 500 ft. above the published traffic pattern altitude (TPA) until well clear of the airport area, then descend to TPA. This can be seen in the change from green to red on the respective lines.  It does need to be drawn better; I am not in the least bit artistically inclined.

Determining what that expected orientation can be done through mental visualization ("we're approaching from due south and the runway in use is likely to be Rwy 32, so it the approach end will be to my right"), or one could simply zoom in on the airport as depicted on a decent moving map display such as the Dynon Skyview.

With a good moving map GPS, it would also be easy to create an applicable waypoint to match the correct starting point as depicted on the card, although this would require advance knowledge of what the prevailing winds will be upon arrival. Absent that, an overflight of the airport would be required.

Once the waypoint is reached and the landing direction determined, it's a simple matter to just follow the line and manage the descent as described above.

I had an opportunity to perform an inflight test with a neophyte to see how well it would work:

It seemed to work well enough on the first try, but obviously the "student" would improve rapidly over the next couple of flights,

So, what do you think?

Monday, January 18, 2016

The RV Community

I have given a lot of people rides in both my RV-6 and now in my RV-12, and I always enjoy it as least as much as they do. Having been blessed with owning a Van's RV for what, nine or ten years now, it's easy to forget what wonderful little airplanes they are. Just as humans can get used to just about anything, there is a similar risk of getting so used to things that they start to be taken for granted - flying with people that have never been in a small plane before, or pilots that have never experienced the physical freedom of a nimble little sport plane, tends to remind the owner of what a special privilege it is to have one of these things.

I have to be honest, though: I don't remember everyone I've given a ride to, but they sure do remember me! There's one guy at the airport that has had to remind me twice now that he took a ride with me. 

And now as I write this, I realize that I've forgotten his name. 


On the other hand, there are some rides that are very memorable. There was a 50-something guy that had never flown in an airplane of any type, despite a life-long interest. And, or course, many of the very pretty young women are easily recalled.

And then there was Phil.

Phil called me one day last May to introduce himself as a fellow RV-12 builder in search of a ride. Naturally I told him that I'd be happy to give him one, and all he had to do was let me know when he wanted to come out to the airport. There was a pause.... then he somewhat reluctantly told me that doing so would be a three hour round trip. "No problem," I told him, "I'll fly out to Zanesville and you can meet me there." That's less than a half hour trip in the 12, so it was no big deal at all.

The ride was memorable mostly because of how effusively ebullient he was. I've seen that in younger people, and sometimes in 50-somethings as mentioned above, but seldom in the late-60s to 70-something group. That's not to say that they don't enjoy or appreciate it, because they do, but this guy was almost giddy.  When we landed, we went through the obligatory "can I give you same gas money" dance, wherein they offer a couple of times and I respectfully decline. 

Besides the fact that accepting money flies right in the face of FAA regulations, I really don't think it's necessary. I enjoy the flying, and the hourly costs of flying an RV-12 are so low that my out-of-pocket cost is nearly insignificant. And besides, I'm really just re-paying the debts incurred from those times in the past when it was I that was asking for/receiving rides in RVs. 

This willingness to share the experience is by no means unique to me - it's really just part and parcel with the mores of the RV Community.

What I have failed to realize, though, is that what I consider to be nothing more than a small favor may very well be measured at a far higher worth to the recipient of what I think of as minimal largess.

Obviously Phil had been one of those that received more than what I thought I was giving. I could tell that this was the case when I got back to home base and picked up my phone to close my domestic flight plan (the text I send home to tell my spouse that I had cheated fate once again) and saw that I had a text from Phil telling me to make sure to look over to the passenger side - he had left something in the plane.

I did so, and found two wadded up $50 bills.

Sigh. Very few of them have ever resorted to subterfuge to get past my barriers.

I had to do something with those bills, so I eventually decided to stash them away in a couple of places where they may someday become handy in one of those situations where I suddenly find myself in need of some cash. Believe it or not, I still run across airports that don't take credit cards for gas.

I never forgot Phil's ride, but it had receded to the back corners of my memory until late last December when I received a message from Phil's wife telling me that he had passed away in November.

She told me that she was contacting me because she thought I would want to know how much that ride had meant to Phil. 

I did.

I took a day or two to absorb the news, then remembered that I had taken a couple of pictures of him during the flight, which is something I try to do with everyone that rides with me. I was able to dig those out of my picture repository and send the better of the two to her, for which she was very grateful.

Then I had another thought.

I never know how to approach emotionally sensitive things like this, so I cautiously composed another message to her that went something like "I apologize if this is inappropriate, but if you need help selling the kit, please let me know and I'll be happy to assist."

She took me up on the offer this past weekend, so I drove out to the very nice heated garage where Phil had been building the plane in order to assess the situation. In order to sell the kit, I would have to have a pretty good idea of what the state of the build was, and just as importantly, how well organized it was. As it turned out, it was in extremely good condition, very well organized, and looked like it should be very easy to sell.  

In fact, I may have already sold it. I have a friend that lives nearby that has expressed an interest in just this kind of deal.

As I was looking around the shop, I also suggested that she would have no trouble selling the specialty tools as well.  As I was winnowing them out from the more day-to-day tools, I came across one that I need myself, so I told her I would be making an offer on it.

When I had all of the airplane parts separated out from lawnmower parts and the like, I asked her how much she wanted for the tool, based on the price I found by looking on Aircraft Spruce.

She paused, clearly thinking it through, then finally said, "Well, I guess I need to know what your fee is going to be first."

I have to confess to being momentarily stunned by the question; I can't imagine anyone in the RV community would even consider charging a fee for what I had done for her.

I told her that there would be no fee - in fact, it was a nice opportunity to use the knowledge that I spent three years building, only to never need again. 

Happy to do it!

She thought for a few minutes, then said "How about $100 for the tool?"

Perfect!  I actually remember where I stashed away those two 50's!

Thanks, Phil!

Oh, she also asked if I had known that Phil was ill at the time we went flying together. I had not, but as it was cancer, he probably did. 

He very likely knew that flight would be the only flight he would ever have in an RV-12 - my eyes are getting misty just from writing this. 

Now I better understand the worth people may be putting on those rides that I consider to be just another chance to fly my airplane.

It can be quite high.