Sunday, March 3, 2013

Aviation 101: Always Keep Your Brain Ahead of the Plane

Always be willing to learn from mistakes, they are excellent teaching tools. In aviation, the best mistakes are those that bruise the ego and nothing else.

While learning how to fly, I've made my share of mistakes, ahem, bad landings. Let's just say I'm thankful that Cessna makes airplanes with strong landing gear.

Beyond bad landings, one stupid mistake remains stuck in my mind to this day.

A Busy Crossing
While working toward my private pilot license at Oakland International Airport (OAK), my instructor took me to San Carlos Airport (SQL) located south of San Francisco International Airport (SFO). It's short runway, half the length I was accustomed to, meant landings had to be spot on.

The VFR crossing procedure required comfort with the radios and wake-turbulence awarenes. The flight path followed the solid blue line in the picture below.

First, we departed OAK on runway 27L, flying the left-hand traffic pattern while climbing to 1400 ft. ATC would then provide clearance to proceed over the approach end of runway 29 at OAK and then mid-span of the San Mateo Bridge. This portion required extra vigilance because we were required to pass beneath heavy jet arrivals at SFO. ATCs warning, "Caution, wake turbulence." was taken seriously.

After crossing the bridge, we'd contact SQL tower; they instructed us to proceed over the cement plant and enter right traffic for pattern work on runway 30. To help acquire the airport, we could tune the KNBR radio station (680 AM) on the ADF for general bearing information (this was before the time of omnipresent GPS). The procedure was the same each time I made the crossing with my instructor, and soon it became second nature.

My First Solo Crossing
On a solo flight, I decided to make the crossing to SQL to practice landings. My instructor felt confident that I could do the crossing safely. I tuned my communication and navigation radios before my departure from OAK and I even entered 680 AM into the ADF to keep a general bearing to the KNBR tower. The weather was great with little to no wind.

I completed the departure as expected and when I reached the San Mateo Bridge, I contacted SQL. No other aircraft were in the pattern, so SQL's contoller instructed me to report when the KNBR radio tower was in sight and then cleared me for the option using left-hand traffic for runway 12.

The instructions were opposite to what I had practiced in the past, but it was not a big deal. I acknowledged the request and, without hesitation, I turned directly toward the KNBR radio tower using my ADF as a guide. I the completed my landing checklist and began my descent to pattern altitude (800 ft).

This is worth repeating, I turn the the plane to track a radio tower (about 600 ft tall) and started descending. Does that seem stupid to you?

Chugging along, I mentally prepared myself for this non-standard entry to land on runway 12. I was impressed with my ability to track the radio tower, when it dawned on me--I'm flying toward a tall radio antenna and descending!!

Fearing a collision, I added power to climb and bank the plane to the right. Looking out the window, I saw the towers pass beneath me. Had I been 200 ft lower, I would have clipped the antennas and crashed.

I was shaken, but I pressed on landed at SQL. I requested and received permission to taxi to runway 30 to return to OAK. I taxied slow so I could gather my thoughts and calm my nerves. I flew back to OAK when I felt ready.

Although this incident occured over 10-years ago, I think about it a lot. It was a dumb mistake that could have cost me my life. But this mistake was valuable as I now ask myself, "Does what I'm about to do make sense?"

This question keeps complacency in check.

-Dr. Dave

Friday, February 8, 2013

Health Care Plan Rube Goldberg Style

Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist who depicted complicated contraptions that accomplish basic tasks. The comics are hilarious:

Each year talented minds pay homage to Rube Goldberg by creating increasingly complicated contraptions. Check out this link to videos of several amusing Goldberg devices:

The Dark Side

Levity aside, can you imagine having to use a Rube Goldberg device for everyday tasks? Imagine a Rube Goldberg car. What a nightmare!

The Rube Goldberg approach is not limited to devices or machines. For example, I attended a health care enrollment meeting and the plans could have been designed by Rube himself!

Each plan was so complicated, it's as though they were designed to confuse!
And I work in the health care field!

Why must something as essential as health care be so confusing and complicated? What happened to common sense and simplicity?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Annual Checkout in the Piper Seminole

I frequently rent Piper Seminoles from my FBO. As part of their rental agreement for the Seminole, I'm required to undergo an annual proficiency check.

The Piper Seminole is small two-engine airplane with constant speed propellers and retractable landing gear. (Such airplanes are commonly called a "twin".) Airplanes like the Seminole are more complicated to fly than a simple single-engine airplane like the Cessna 172 or the Diamond DA40. Although most small airplanes fly the same, differences becomes apparent when an emergency arises. And the most challenging emergency a pilot can face is an engine failure.

Engine Failure: Single Engine versus Twin Engine

If an engine fails in a single-engine airplane, it becomes a glider. You don't have a choice in the matter. Simply pitch the nose down to maintain the best glide speed land in an open area. It's no surprise that simulated engine failures are a common component of private pilot training and certification.

In a two-engine airplane, a single engine failure means only half the thrust is lost. But think about situation some more and you can appreciate why twins are harder to fly: the working engine must now contend with the weight and drag of the dead engine. Thrust is asymmetric, which adds to challenge, because if you fly too slow with a failed engine the plane can flip over. Scary!

Unlike a single-engine airplane, a twin with a failed engine is not a glider. Having one functioning engine can give a poorly trained pilot a false sense of security. In reality, an engine failure (50% power loss) results in a performance loss of about 80%! The plane is still capable of flight, but with significantly degraded performance.

A good pilot knows how to fly any airplane not only when all is well, but when an emergency arises. To see an emergency situation through to a safe outcome requires practice. And it's a good idea to undergo routine training flights, such as a proficiency check, to practice emergency situations. Preparation makes for safe aviation.

Here's a picture of a Seminole I rent.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Value of Time

It's the start of a new year! And as usual, it feels as though the holiday season was a blur. Time. Really. Does. Fly.

When I think about time, my mind wanders to relativity. Not Einstein's theories, but to the relativity of time as we perceive it.

A unit of time (minute, hour, day) is defined. Time is an objective quantity. But the perception of time is subjective, an hour may pass in an instant whereas a minute may feel like an eternity.

The Value of Time

Time keeps moving forward, which makes it much more valuable than money (at least in my eyes). You can always earn more money, but you can't earn more time (unless you have a time machine).

Given that life is finite and of an unknown duration, it must be spent wisely. How will you spend your time?