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Could I still fly without GPS?

May 13, 2014

Somewhere in the blink of an eye, 20+ years have gone by since I learned to fly. Back when I was young, a semester seemed like a long time the first day you walked into school after vacation. A year seemed like forever and 20 years was an un-imaginable eternity. Not anymore. Looking back, 20+ years have gone by very fast.

Point being, I learned to fly many moons ago, well before GPS became mainstay. In hindsight I don’t think my flight training was all that great but I did grasp the fundamentals of navigation quite well – without GPS or moving maps that are commonplace now. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to fly to many parts of the world, plotted many courses and looked at many maps to get to where I was going. Big cities, small towns, I always tried to find something interesting in the places I was going. You probably didn’t know Tifton GA once was the reading capital of the world did you? I knew because I flew in there one day :)

GPS navigation improved situational awareness tremendously and made long-range navigation a lot easier but I still fly as if the GPS could go away at any time. GPS is very reliable but in a small airplane you have to be conservative. More likely you could lose the electrical system altogether. So whenever I fly over water I make sure I can get to my destination the old-fashioned way: compass and time. Plot your course, scribble down a nav log and if all else fails, just flying the compass heading over the specified times should put you close enough to your destination to pick up some local navigation aid or land VFR.

The other day I flew without GPS for the first time since I don’t quite remember when. I was delivering a nice Beech Baron to the Yucatan and the owner had told me there’d be a brand new portable GPS in the plane. I have a bit of an aversion to gadgets and wires dangling in the cockpit so I rarely carry a portable GPS myself. When I got to the airport I set out to open the box with the owner’s new GPS but I gave up quickly. I didn’t want to spend much time or rob the new owner of the joy of setting up his new gadgets so I decided to just fly VFR the old-fashioned way.

I took off in NC and had severe clear skies all the way to South Florida where I was stopping for fuel and customs. Over Florida at 14,500 feet I could see 80 miles, a gorgeous clear day. The next morning was more of the same, clear skies and light winds. I took off from Opa Locka and headed for Key West, where I finally found the first functioning NDB station since North Carolina (I’d been using VORs to double check my position). Fish Hook NDB and the Key West VOR gave me good navigation for better than 150nm out of Key West, then I was on my own until I got in range of the VORs in Yucatan, except for an occasional check of my position to Havana VOR. When I got in range of Cancun VOR I found my position to be about 2 miles off course. 2 miles seems like an awful lot nowadays in the era of GPS but it’s really not. I was flying VFR on a clear day and had good navigation when in range of my destination. I wasn’t going to miss the Yucatan by any stretch. Now in the really old days when people were flying without GPS to places like Hawaii or Wake Island, that would be another challenge.

Once in range of the Merida VOR, I landed safely in Mexico on Cinco de Mayo! Only to find out that Cinco de Mayo is mostly a big commercial thing in the US and “real” Mexicans don’t make a big deal out of it. Bummer :)

route to Yucatan

Map showing airways from Key West to the Yucatan

flying over FL Keys

Flying over the Florida Keys

When I was approaching Opa Locka in South Florida, the controllers gave me several vectors around traffic and airspace. About 8 miles out of Opa Locka, came the dreaded “resume own navigation”. There’s no VOR at Opa Locka and the localizer had been NOTAM’d inop. I pointed the airplane to where I thought the airport should be but after 3 hours at 14,500 feet I wasn’t sure about my distance perception at low altitude. I looked at the airport in front of me and another one just to the North.

I decided “almost sure” didn’t cut it, so I asked the tower controller (most have radar in South FL).

“I’m doing this the old fashioned way without GPS, can you confirm Opa Locka is the airport directly in front of me?”

The controller confirmed my position. Said he understood, most of the airports in S. FL have the same runway configuration and landing at the wrong airport is easier than you might think.

How to export an airplane

May 10, 2014

I almost wrote “how NOT to export an airplane”. That sounds too condescending but it’s hard to overstate the importance of doing everything correctly when exporting an airplane. I’ve seen too many buyers run into problems because they relied on bad advice from a seller or inexperienced pilot. It’s not fun when I have to go retrieve an airplane that was left stranded in the middle of nowhere because another pilot flew without valid registration, failed a ramp check somewhere or things of that nature. Those types of problems can cost the new owner a lot of money.

So if you’ll bear with me and forgive the “do this don’t do that” tone, here are some of the most common questions or issues regarding aircraft export. If I’ve overlooked anything or you have any corrections / additions please let me know:

Where to close the sale?

You can “close” the sale of the airplane either in the country of origin or in the destination country. Both are perfectly acceptable as long as you are aware of the implications for the ferry flight. If you close the sale in the country of origin, the buyer legally owns the airplane from that point on and will be responsible for the airplane, registration, airworthiness, etc. If you close the sale in the destination country, the seller is responsible for all of those things until the airplane is delivered. In General Aviation, the seller usually wants to close the sale in the country of origin, they simply don’t want the responsibility of the ferry flight or the (perceived) risk of flying their airplane to a foreign country.

The important consideration here is when you “close” the sale, for a US registered airplane, the aircraft’s existing registration (in name of the seller) becomes invalid and the airplane must then be re-registered by the buyer.

Additionally, you should always use a reputable escrow service to exchange funds for clear title to the airplane. Any other arrangement such as paying the seller directly or releasing funds (other than any agreed upon advance) without filing the FAA title at the same time leave the buyer open to significant risk.

Aircraft registration for the ferry flight:

If you “close” the sale in the destination country the aircraft registration remains valid (assuming the seller has the airplane registered properly) in name of the seller for the duration of the ferry flight. For longer trips in General Aviation aircraft it is not common for the seller to agree to this.

If you “close” the sale in the country of origin, the airplane must be re-registered in name of the buyer prior to commencing the ferry flight. This is probably the area where most problems occur. Nowadays the FAA is more strict about requiring that sellers return their registration certificate to the FAA but I have seen buyers run into problems because they simply flew the airplane with the previous owner’s registration certificate in the airplane, only to realize that it was no longer valid when they got ramp checked or passed through Customs.

Aircraft registration in the country of origin or destination country?

If the buyer closes the sale in the country of origin, he or she must then decide to register the airplane in the country of origin or in the destination country. Most countries’ civil aviation authorities will readily issue a registration for an airplane that is being imported but you if you go that route, you will also need a provisional airworthiness certificate from the importing country – airworthiness and registration must be from the same country. This is typically more complicated for a used airplane. Depending on the requirements of the importing country, it may be quite expensive to get a provisional airworthiness certificate as the civil aviation authorities may require that the airplane is inspected by someone licensed in that country. There are also TSA security procedures that must be complied with for operation of some foreign registered aircraft in the USA.

If you wish to register the airplane in the country of origin for the duration of the ferry flight, the buyer must follow the correct procedure for that country. For a US registered airplane, the only legal and correct procedure for a foreign person or entity to register an airplane is via a “trust” (there are some exceptions if the airplane is intended to be physically based and operated in the USA).

This is also an area where many problems occur. The trust is fairly easy and inexpensive to create and is a fully legal structure. Using a trust allows operation on US registration indefinitely. However, other “solutions” such as setting up a Delaware corporation to be the registered owner or asking a seller not to file the FAA paperwork until the airplane arrives at it’s destination are not legal and DO NOT protect the buyer. Alternatively you can use an intermediary to export the airplane but only if the intermediary is in fact the legal owner of the airplane.

Export Certificate of Airworthiness:

Most countries require an Export CofA for aircraft being imported. There are a multitude of bi-lateral agreements that govern this subject but the basic idea is that the Export CofA states 2 things: 1) the airplane is currently airworthy in the exporting country and 2) the airplane meets any additional requirements of the importing country.

If you plan to keep operating the airplane on US registration, an Export CofA is typically not required but it is still a good idea to check if your airplane meets the additional requirements of the importing country because you must meet the “operating requirements” of the countries you fly in. So if you fly in Europe where most countries still require DME for IFR operations, you must have a DME in the airplane if you plan to fly IFR, even if you fly on N-registration.

The “additional requirements” of the importing country can vary from trivial to very expensive. For example, most countries outside North America require an altimeter in millibars. More expensive issues could exist around validation of STCs. If your airplane has been modified in accordance with any STCs (supplemental type certificates) it is important to verify that those STCs have been validated in the importing country. Maintenance requirements may also be more stringent in the importing country: for example, some countries mandate engine overhauls in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations of time in service as well as calendar time. The US FAA does not mandate those overhaul periods (for privately operated aircraft).

US Customs export:

US Customs export is mostly a formality but it is a requirement by law. Exporting an airplane is a bit unique in that the airplane is both the mode of transportation and the commodity being exported (if flown, not if containerized, in that case it is just a commodity being exported). What’s important here is that “import” and “export” for Customs purposes are typically determined by physical base of operations, not by country of registration. The export formalities can be handled by a licensed customs broker.

Ferry flight:

Depending on the destination and route of flight, there are likely to be operational requirements for the ferry flight above and beyond those of the exporting country. For example, requirements for survival gear, emergency equipment, pilot’s licensing and fuel reserve are more stringent during the ferry flight than during operations in the continental USA. It’s important to be sure your ferry pilot observes all the requirements. For example, a pilot who flies directly from Goose Bay to Narsarsuaq in an airplane that doesn’t meet the Transport Canada equipment and fuel reserve requirements would be at risk of violations, fines, invalidate the aircraft’s insurance, etc.

If you have any questions regarding aircraft export or ferry flight feel free to contact me. This is not meant to be an exhaustive, step-by-step guide but only a summary of the most common issues based on my own experience as a ferry pilot.

SAM_1014

MH370 tragedy is guaranteed to re-write the books

March 23, 2014

I won’t speculate about the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared on March 8. For the sake of the families I hope there is a resolution soon. What I do know is that MH370 will re-write the book on air traffic control, tracking airplanes and possibly piloting airplanes. Aviation as we know it, typically 2 pilots, physically inside an airplane, using mostly voice communications to an air traffic controller, will be history one day. MH370 will likely make that demise come sooner rather than later.

Outside looking in, it must be baffling to the general public that a large airliner can just disappear off the face of the planet, especially in today’s wired world where we can reach just about anybody anytime at the touch of a touchscreen. In reality, airplanes over oceans and in remote areas can easily disappear because there is no continuous, real-time tracking in most remote or oceanic areas (the North Atlantic being the exception). There is no civilian radar beyond a couple hundred miles off shore so air traffic controllers rely on periodic position reports, either by voice communication or satellite data link. Position reports are made at pre-determined points such as every 10 degrees of longitude, every hour, or at specified navigation fixes. If a plane for some reason deviates or changes course, nobody on the ground would know until the pilots or the airplane’s data link reported the new course. Many sophisticated military surveillance systems exist around the world but those are looking for threats, not tracking any and every civilian airplane.

There are many systems to make sure pilots and controllers can stay in touch at all times: VHF and HF radio, SELCAL, data links, radar, and various emergency systems. However, in today’s aircraft most of these systems depend to some extent on the pilot’s interaction with them.

Certain accidents in the history of aviation were a catalyst for industry-wide changes: the crash of ValuJet 592 led the FAA to overhaul how it certifies new airlines, Air Florida flight 90 led to more stringent de-icing procedures and a new emphasis on CRM (cockpit resource management). More recently the crash of Colgan Air 3407 compelled the FAA to change experience and certification requirements for airline pilots.

I’m sure the Malasia Airlines MH370 tragedy will have a similar if not greater impact on aviation. MH370 will greatly accelerate the implementation of real-time satellite data links, implementation of communication and navigation systems that are independent of pilot action, and possibly in the future remotely piloted aircraft. If you look at the military use of drones, airline pilots could soon be sitting in a secure ground location, “flying” their airplanes through remote data entry and monitoring – with automation or supervisors overriding any problematic inputs. Autopilots have long been able to do the physical work anyway.

I imagine most of us would be reluctant to fly in the back of a remotely-controlled airliner, those pilots in their sharp uniforms smiling at the gate always gave us that confidence, that they would be there if all else failed. Now we may not be so sure. If MH370 in the end proves that the pilots can be compromised, may willfully cause a tragedy, or can be overtaken even in the post 9-11 era, pilots may soon go the way of telegraph operators – replaced by technology.

I know the counter-argument would be that technology can be compromised as well. If a datalink to a remotely controlled airliner was compromised we’d have the same problem. However, that has never happened yet. On the other hand hijackings have happened and pilot suicides are largely believed to have caused the crash of EgyptAir flight 990 and SilkAir flight 185. If there is a knee-jerk reaction we only make it by looking back, not looking forward.

None of this are new ideas. I submit that the greatest obstacle has not been cost or technological challenge but rather a psychological reluctance on our part. A reluctance that may be about to change.

bgsf-sondre-stromfjord

Just a pretty picture of Kangerlussuaq or Sondre Stromfjord airport – BGSF.

I’m pretty sure I own the world speed record in a Cessna 172

March 2, 2014

Groundspeed, that is. Between the Independence factory and Shreveport Louisiana, during the airplane’s very first flight after delivery, we saw groundspeeds over 180kts. I don’t remember the actual top speed I saw on that flight but I remember 182kts and 188kts. I’m not sure but it seems to me either 188kts or 192kts was the top groundspeed during the flight. If you’re not a pilot or not familiar with the Cessna 172, the airplane’s typical cruise speed is about 125kts (~140mph).

The flight was our first leg on a delivery from the factory to South America, middle of winter a couple of years ago. We departed the factory a day after a storm system moved through and our route of flight to Shreveport was directly along the direction of the winds on the back side of the storm. Here in the Northern Hemisphere the winds circle the low pressure system in a counter-clockwise manner. Not very often do you see winds that strong (in excess of 50kts) at the altitudes a C172 flies and usually when the winds are that strong at 10,000 feet the weather would be too bad to fly in. In this case the storm was well ahead of us, we barely hit a few thin layers of clouds and had VFR with reasonable winds at the surface.

After we got to Lima a few days later I scrolled through the history on the G1000 and saw the top recorded groundspeed. I was in a hurry to get back home but I should have thought to stop and take a picture of the display. At any rate it struck me how this airplane – given the life expectancy of your typical C172 – may fly the world over for the next 40+ years and possibly never see groundspeeds in that magnitude again. Never come close to the speed it reached on its very first flight out of the factory. No matter how many C172s I may or may not fly again in the future, I doubt that I’ll ever see groundspeeds that high in a C172 again.

Cessna 172 flying down the Bahamas

Cessna 172 flying down the Bahamas

The Andes mountains in Peru on our G1000 MFD

The Andes mountains in Peru on our G1000 MFD

Night landing checklist

May 8, 2013

I’m a very lucky guy in many ways. I have my family, my health, a good career. I’ve been very blessed.

One unusual way that I’ve been blessed is that coming up on middle-age – OK, if you ask my wife I’m already there – I now have the best eyesight that I have ever had. I look at things like mountains in the distance and marvel at the detail that I see. Without glasses I see much better than I ever did when I used glasses. And I didn’t have eye surgery either, my eyes just got better.

I never used glasses as a kid but I sort of knew that my eye sight was a bit less than that of other kids. When I got my first medical I got the dreaded “holder shall wear correcting lenses” limitation and my first pair of eye glasses. Over the years I changed my prescription once and got another set of glasses. I always got the self-tinting kind, the kind that gets darker or clearer depending on the light, no sunglasses needed. I thought that was cool. About 4 years ago my flight physicians started to notice my eyesight had gotten about the same without glasses as with my glasses. I get 2 medicals a year now and after about 3 or 4 times getting my medical without the glasses, I tossed those puppies and started flying without.

All this to say that I’m still barely getting used to having sunglasses in the cockpit. Before I didn’t need them, my self-tinting glasses (I think there must be a real word for that) did the trick.

Below is a video we shot of our night landing at Djibouti last September, during a ferry flight to Nairobi. Very uneventful, the way things should be. The eventful part happened about 15 minutes before the landing, when we started our descent to Djibouti. We’d been flying over the Red Sea and the Sahara desert most of the day (coming from Jeddah) and I had donned my cool pilot-style sunglasses.

As we started our descent to Djibouti I had the worst time seeing the instrument panel. I’m flying from the right seat and could barely read the airspeed indicator on the other side. To make things worse I remembered reading a note on the Djibouti approach plate about using extreme caution because the runway can easily be confused with a city highway at night. I’m fussing at Ted: “turn up the panel lights, turn up the lights”. I fussed about the panel lighting in the older Cessnas that just isn’t very good but something in the back of my mind kept telling me this had happened before and the solution was real easy. But what the heck was it?

Then I remembered: my night landing checklist got a new item since I don’t wear those self-tinting glasses anymore:

“SUNGLASSES – REMOVE”

Then I saw the runway from miles away :)

When the desert blooms

April 20, 2013

I just took a Cessna 172 from Miami to Santiago de Chile. It was a nice trip, 7 days in all. Bahamas to Jamaica, Colombia to Ecuador, Peru and finally Chile. My last fuel stop was in the Atacama desert in Chile, about 3 hours north of Santiago by C172. Deserts can be beautiful places and Atacama is no exception.

I make a point of bringing up the things I like about each place in conversation with the local people at the various stops on my flights. I get a chance to see many beautiful places – and places not many tourists go – but in some of these far-flung places life isn’t all that easy. So I make a point of showing my appreciation for their service, the hospitality, etc.

On this stop, when I was chatting with the refuelers I mentioned how beautiful the desert looks from the sky. One of the fuel guys responded that the desert is REALLY BEAUTIFUL when the desert is in bloom, it has all kind of colors and looks just amazing. I asked when that happens and he said when it rains. So in my silly world of seasons I asked him what time of the year it rains to make the desert bloom, which months of the year? He looked at me like pitty you poor foreigner and replied: “Not which months, only when it rains, the last time it rained was like 3 years ago.” Then I got it :)

* * *

Three words more sacred than I love you: “ILS and avgas”. Atacama Desert (SCAT) has both ILS and avgas. Trust me, fly some light airplanes around far-off places and you’ll agree about the 3 words thingy.

Landing at Desierto de Atacama

Landing in the Atacama desert “Desierto de Atacama” Chile

Refueling in the Atacama desert

Refueling in the Atacama desert. C172 ferry flight to Santiago, Chile.

Smoke in the cockpit

January 16, 2013

There aren’t many worse feelings than smoke in the cockpit. It’s only happened to me once, many moons ago. As I was reading the news of the JAL and ANA grounding of their B787 Dreamliners I immediately thought back to the one awful moment that I realized there was smoke in the cockpit.

I’d been warned.

I was a lowly flight instructor in the days after Sept 11, 2001. Flying jobs were next to impossible to find so I was “biding my time” as a flight instructor in Merritt Island, Florida. My flight that fateful day was to do a flight-review with an 80-something year old lady. She was a retired US Navy officer and I’d been told she had a bit of a strong character. Her doctor had told her she shouldn’t be flying any more but she decided to come to our flight school to prove otherwise. I’d never flown with her before but other flight instructors urged me not to sign her logbook ( for a flight review ) if I wasn’t comfortable.

My “student” had her own airplane, an older Cessna 172. She was impatient and went to pre-fly the airplane while I was taking care of some paperwork inside.

It was my own fault.

My student started her airplane and pulled up in front of our flight school office. I jumped in without stopping the engine. In an older Cessna it’s hard to see if the battery is charging once the airplane is running. The generator charge is something that you should check immediately after starting, it’s on the after-start checklist. I wasn’t in the airplane when it was started. I should have stopped and started over but I didn’t.

We took off and were climbing out to the practice area to the West of the airport when I noticed the generator field circuit breaker had tripped. Something I’d been taught long before is that you NEVER NEVER NEVER reset a tripped circuit breaker in flight unless you absolutely need that missing system to avoid a grave and imminent emergency.

So I pushed in the generator field circuit breaker.

To this day I don’t know what made me do that. I think because I didn’t do the entire pre-flight and before-start checklists with my student, I figured that she simply didn’t check the circuit breakers. For whatever reason, I just pushed in that circuit breaker. As soon as I pushed in the circuit breaker I said to myself something along the lines of “What the devil did you do that for?” Maybe I simply blocked out the idea that airplanes do catch on fire because most all of our flights are always routine, most airline pilots fly an entire career without dealing with a serious system emergency. Either way, it was a pull-type circuit breaker so I didn’t worry about it.

For about 20 seconds. That’s when electrical smoke started to fill the cockpit. I reached over to my old friend the generator field circuit breaker and pulled. And pulled. And pulled.

Nothing.

One reason to never push in a popped circuit breaker is that the breaker may weld itself shut when you push it back in. This one did. Smoke kept filling the cockpit. I practically rolled the airplane on its side doing a 180 back to the airport. We were only minutes away from the airport and over nice open fields. When we approached the airport is where I had to make a decision. The last few miles to the airport were devoid of suitable emergency landing sites. I either had to continue or set down in an open field. Our smoke situation wasn’t getting any better but I figured I had some time. We continued to the airport and landed safely. I later learned the airplane was an awful mess of years of neglect and “pilot / owner maintenance”. The generator had been jerry-rigged to basically by-pass the voltage regulator. More RPM meant more voltage in direct correlation.

* * *

I’m sure Boeing will figure the 787 issues out eventually. I’ve done some work with New Product Introduction (NPI) at GE Aircraft Engines and there are always some growing pains. Having said that, there aren’t any worse feelings than smoke in the cockpit.

flying-egypt-desert

Flying over the Egyptian desert. Lots of good emergency landing room here…

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