Tail Wheel Training – Phoenix

My christmas present from Beth this year was to buy a plane. With our travel to Mexico in 2013 and our desire to do more cross country trips, using club planes has become increasingly burdensome. I’ve settled on a Maule. It’s a classic bush plane. That is, a plane designed to land on unimproved areas. As we love to hike and camp, it seemed like a perfect plane to expand the flying opportunities we’ve already enjoyed in the mountains of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.

Bush planes are typically conventional gear airplanes. It’s a little counter intuitive given that the planes most people are familiar with are tricycle gear planes with a nose wheel, but those are actually the new kids on the block. When aviation was first being developed the early planes had a tail wheel. So, while definitely not the dominant flavor of gear configuration today, they are still referred to as ‘conventional’ gear.

The reason most airplanes are tri-gear is because conventional gear planes are a bit more challenging to manage near and on the ground. With a tri-gear plane the center of gravity sits between the main gear and the nose wheel. This creates an inherently stable situations whereby the plane wants to keep going in the direction it’s pointed.

With conventional gear planes, the center of gravity is behind the main gear so the plane, from a physics standpoint, is always trying to flip that around and push the CG through the main gear. From a practical standpoint this means that a tail wheel pilot needs to be doing a dance on the rudder to keep the back of the plane behind the front.

This additional challenge has two direct implications on the pilots wallet. First is that the FAA requires an endorsement in order to fly such planes. They require a minimum of 10 hours tail wheel training. The second is that insurance companies require some number of hours before insuring the pilot. In my case that was another 10 hours. Between the two I have to complete 20 hours of training before I can solo.

With that as the goal, I set off for Arizona to get trained on the subject.

Phoenix is, as most of you will remember, a desert city. With a lot to accomplish in only a few days this was a welcome change from the midwest and the reality that new weather systems come through every couple days. I flew in on a Friday evening and our plan was to train Saturday through Tuesday. That would put us in the plane for five hours a day to get to the twenty. It’s still a lot of flying in a short period of time, but it’s also eminently doable.

I was thus quite disappointed to awaken Saturday morning to the sound of rain. Looking at a weather forecast my mood didn’t get any better. Somehow this desert has arranged to get about a quarter of its yearly allotment of rain during the course of an entire day of miserable training weather. We head to the airport for ground school and to meet with the folks that are doing my pre-purchase inspection on the plane.

A pre-purchase inspection is one in which you hire someone to do a check of the airplane just as you hire someone to inspect a home prior to purchase. They check the compression of the engine, review the log books for compliance with mandatory notices and check everything for corrosion. Unlike the previous airplane I attempted to buy, this one passed with flying colors. So that took 30 minutes, what to do with the rest of the day…

We sat in the hanger for a while watching tail wheel videos and talking about the differences in flying and, finally, caught a break in the weather. We flew the plane from the inspection airport to the training one and called it an early day before grabbing a couple beers and swapping stories over dinner.

Over the next few days the weather was perfect. We trained at five or six different airports and got most of the time in that I needed to be both legal and safe. The environment out there is awesome. Mountains surround the area we trained in and we did a lot of training at a glider port that had multiple crossing runways. This allowed me to fly 10-15 take off and landings in an hour. I think our total ended up at about 51, well in excess of the 30 the my insurance company required as a minimum.

Primarily due to the rain delay, I still need to get a few hours done and will be heading back in a couple weeks to round out my training. Until then, at least I had a fun time and got some good video out of it.

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Electronics in the Cockpit

This post was originally composed on Facebook to my old friend and colleague Ian Foster on the subject of whether there is a scientific reason for electronics must be turned off in the cabin on commercial airlines…

The safety issue is indeed overblown. Now that said, here’s why it’s more subtle than most people give it credit.

For starters, the FAA generally gives pilots the broad ability to allow any electronics they like. The language is something like the pilot in command must assure that there is no hazard posed by the electronic.

Now think about what that means. A pilot, or an airline, would have to do rigorous testing on every single device manufactured in order to assure that they don’t interfere with anything. Those tests would likely have to take place in a real airplane under flight conditions (because some electronics will behave differently at altitude than on the ground, think about devices with radio transceivers (wifi, cellular) that increase their transmission strength in a quest to find a far away receiver). The test would be time consuming as well as they would have to run them repeatedly in different parts of the plane in order to evaluate safety for the device being closer to various avionics. Finally, consider software defined radios and they would probably have to do an abbreviated version this test regiment for every version of the software that ships as the behavior of the radios could potentially change with patches to the radio libraries.

Realistically, devices with radios are the biggest threat vector, so we could just draw the line there and say that they must be turned off during critical phases of flight. That presents two problems. 1) Now the flight attendents have to be well enough trained in electronics to know which devices have radios and which don’t. 2) The electronics people want to use on airplanes are laptops, kindles, tablets and phones. All of which have radios. So the flying public doesn’t exactly get a big win with this sort of rule.

To make this more real, I’ll give you two real world examples of how iPads can interfere with flights. One involving a radio, one not.

1) I was flying a few months ago and noticed that my compass and my heading indicator (heading indicator is a gyroscopic instrument that also shows the direction of flight) kept getting out of sync. This is somewhat normal. The HI precesses (because the gyroscope isn’t perfect) and needs to be reset to the compas occasionally. What was weird was that instead of the typical 5 degrees left every 20 minutes kind of a precession, this time it was 20-25 degrees left, then 20-25 degrees right. It made holding a consistent path through the sky difficult. As I debugged the problem, I realized after a long while that the error was one direction when my ipad was on the top of the instrument panel and the other direction when it was on my lap. Finally I noticed that when it was on my lap there was no error, but when it was on top of the instrument panel there was an error. In the end, I figured out that it was the magnets that are embedded for the ipad cover that were tweaking the compass every time I put the ipad on the top of the instrument panel.

2) You know how sometimes you are on a conference call and you here a bunch of digital noise because someones mobile phone is too near the speaker phone while the phone sends out a ping to let the mobile network know it’s still alive or an incoming call causes a larger burst of noise? That happens in planes also. The odds that someone in the plane is going to get a call at the wrong moment and interrupt an emergency transmission from ATC telling the plane to abort a landing are pretty damn low, but it’s non-zero. Under ten thousand feet (when electronics are turned off) things happen very quickly and it can sometimes be a critical safety issue to get a message to a pilot that there is traffic five seconds from hitting him or a deer on the runway.

So, long story short, I think the risks are very, very small. But I think there is indeed scientific basis to the ban and that we should indeed be very careful about how it’s modified.

I’ll note that ipad use in the major airline cockpit is limited to ipads with their radios turned off. I trust pilots to do this. I don’t trust passengers.

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