Sunday, December 27, 2009

Runway incursion

You've heard, no doubt, about the ongoing FAA effort to curtail runway incursions? That's when planes stray onto active runways, conjuring up images of Tenerife.

Today, I was "that guy," but I like to think I wasn't as clueless as the term suggests.

You see, we had a day and a half of rain after a snowfall, and then a freeze, so the taxiways at Flying Cloud were pretty much straight ice. There's been a lot of construction at KFCM in the last year, too, so things aren't necessarily where they were before.

My currency with the FBO expires next week, so I went out today to shoot some touch and go's. With so much of my money going into building the RV-7A, I don't fly very often -- certainly not enough to be proficient. But I'm aware that one of the problems of homebuilding is that pilots stop flying during the construction period, so I've been faithful to keep flying during the time, if only a little bit. When I do fly, I treat it as a training flight. All of my flights are usually local, and all of my activity is usually practicing air work. I also spend a lot of time reading and educating myself about flying, especially the FAA material on runway incursions.

But sometimes the strategies and procedures for avoiding runway incursions, don't help you much.

The day started bright and beautiful but by the time we pulled the Warrior out of the hangar, the snow showers had moved in. The controller directed me to 28R, but I'd seen its condition and asked for 28L instead. "Taxi to runway 28 Left by taxiways Alpha and Charlie," he said.

My airport map didn't list Charlie, and Charlie didn't use to exist, so I asked for progressives. By the time I reached it, I could spot the bright yellow sign so I canceled the progressive taxi instructions.

Usually, I run-up the engine and do my final pre-takeoff check next to 28R. But the ground controller gave me clearance to taxi to 28L, which gives me clearance to cross 28L 28R. But how long does that clearance last? If I do the "run-up" where I normally do, am I still cleared to cross 28R?

I decided I'd head over to the other side of 28L and do my run-up there. So I crossed the end of 28R on taxiway Charlie. It was glare ice and I was going very slowly. There's a hold-short line just before 28R 28L which I couldn't see under all the ice. But in the construction of the summer, they installed flashing lights. As I approached the line -- very slowly -- I applied the brakes, and skidded. My wheels were on the line (maybe an inch or two beyond), but the forward end of the plane was 2-3 feet across it.

"Tower, I've skidded past the hold-short line," I advised. After a moment, the controller cleared me across 28L and helped me fumble around looking for the runup area.

I spent the next hour shooting touch-and-go's. It was difficult seeing much because frost covered the sides of my windows and the snow showers were making life difficult keeping an eye on a Sundowner in the pattern. But all in all, it was a good hour. None of the landings were particularly good, but none were nauseating either.

As I was downwind for 28L, I advised the controller this would be a full-stop landing, he cleared me to land and when I did, I taxied all the way to the end of the runway and turned off. Ground control cleared me to taxi, and then said "N7337V, possible pilot diversion, call the tower, prepare to copy the number."

I got the phone number and thought, "Oh, sh*t, I bet he cleared me to land on 28R that last time, since that's closer to the FBO."

I shut down, paid for the plane, and then called the tower. "Let me guess," I began, "you put me on 28R on that last down?"

"No," the tower supervisor said, "it was skidding past the hold short line."

He couldn't have been nicer, but said they had to report it as a runway incursion. So he took all of my information after I told him what had happened. He said he doesn't know what happens now, but eventually I'll hear from the FAA. I filled out the NASA reporting form. It's not a get-out-of-jail free card but in assessing the penalty, they take under advisement the "attitude" of the pilot and filling out the NASA form (which provides aviation with safety violation information so they can determine what's a problem and what should change, if anything).

Looking back, I realize there's no way the tower could've known I'd passed the hold short line. I was only over it by a couple of feet, and the line wasn't visible from the tower. But I told them what I'd done and I feel OK about that.

What could I have done differently? First, there was a stack of new airport diagrams at the FBO, but they were covered up by an airport newsletter. The airport diagram wasn't the problem here, but knowing construction had been completed, I could've searched out an updated diagram.

I also could have asked the ground controller to let me do the run-up next to 28R, but the condition of the taxiway and the run-up area was -- in my opinion at the time -- likely to be much better on the other side, and even if I'd done that, I still would've approached the hold-short line.

I could have gone slower, but I was barely traveling at the rate of a casual walk as it is. Plus I'd also tested the conditions three times -- once when I turned onto the taxiway, once at the hold-short line for runway 18, and once just before I turned onto taxiway Charlie. Anytime I cross a runway, I try to get across it quickly, so perhaps I picked up speed a little when crossing 28R; I don't know.

I could've stayed on the ground, but I'd never taxied on ice before, not flown in the conditions that were present that day and I wanted to stretch my experience, especially in the controlled environment -- more or less -- of the traffic pattern. There was a time I didn't do well in crosswinds, so I started flying more in crosswinds. I'm very good at crosswind landings now. That's simply how it works.

But flying is a matter of confidence and when you go out for a workout, ending it with a call to the tower negates whatever 'good' might've come out of the day. On the other hand, it also makes you want to go back out and prove you're focused, situationally aware, and educated. That's a good thing.

I'll let you know what I hear.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bookend miracles

This week's overshoot of the runway in Kingston, Jamaica by an American Airlines jet is remarkable in that nobody died. It also provides a fitting bookend to 2009, a year that started with another miracle -- Flight 1549. The flight crew in this latest incident is less likely to be heralded.

An airline source sent me these pictures of the jet.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Afraid to talk on the radio?

Of the many things in this world I don't understand, up near the top is this one: Why don't pilots like to use the radio?

My twin brother was the first one in the Collins family to get a pilot's certificate. Then he paid for my training. We've flown together only once. He stopped flying because he lives just outside the busy Boston airspace and he didn't like talking on the radio. Or so he says.

Today, I was reading a newspaper article in an Oregon newspaper about the idea of adding a control tower to the Aurora airport, the home airport of Van's Aircraft. They estimate that soon there will be over 280 airplanes at the airport making 97,000 take-off and landings at the airport by 2012 with 97,000 takeoff and landings (assuming they're combining the TOs with the landings, that's about 188 flights a year. That's a lot!)

But it was this passage that struck me:

He said that with a control tower, some of those based aircraft will leave because some pilots don’t like using radios. He said the mix of the aircraft at Aurora would change from piston and propeller airplanes, to more turbine powered aircraft.

How is it that people who aren't afraid to get into an airplane and launch into the sky, are afraid to key a button and talk to people?

One of the things I like to do after a flight, is go to, and listen to how I sounded when making radio calls. They keep an archive of radio traffic from particular airports. And for you homebuilders, it's also a good way to determine whether your radio and antenna are up to snuff.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The curse of shipping & handling

There's a thread going on at Rivetbangers asking people whether they've calculated how much they've spent on their RV airplane projects so far. I haven't, but I have a pretty good idea.

Unfortunately, I also have a pretty good idea how much I've spent on shipping and handling charges over the lifespan of the project and I'm not sure the two are that far apart.

This week I was about to rivet on a doubler plate for the comm antenna. So I dug out my Avery Tools pop rivet dimple dies -- two nifty little dies that use a simple nail to allow a pop riveter to be used as a dimpler. But I was out of the small nails. So I put the two dies down on the workbench, and went to the hardware store to buy new nails. $1.98 later, I returned to the hangar, only to find one of the dies was no longer where I left it. A search failed to turn up the missing die.

It sucks enough, frankly, that I had to stop my progress and order a new set from Avery Tools (for the record, I LOVE Avery Tools). But what really chaffs me, is that I had to pay $8.95 for shipping. Avery, like many suppliers, don't offer affordable shipping options like, "stick it in an envelope and mail it by the cheapest way ever invented by the U.S. Postal Service."

Yesterday, the package arrived.

Now keep in mind, this is what I needed (actually, I didn't need the nails, nor the other die, but forget about that.)

And this is the packaging it came in:

A waste of packaging, a waste of resources, and most certainly a waste of money. Sticking it in a padded envelope, slapping $1.20 worth of stamps on it and sending it out the door would have been preferable if added as an option.

Van's Aircraft is even worse. In addition to the shipping charges -- which they don't calculate for you when you order something, you only find out later that it averages $11 (although I once spent $85 shipping for a $100 part!) -- they charge you a $4 "handling fee." Think about that: For the privilege of submitting your order, you pay a $4 fee. Why not just tack on extra money to the price?

Update 3:18 p.m. 12/24/09 -- I was doing some laundry over the weekend. There was a fair amount of clanging coming from the dryer, which usually signifies some loose quarters. Nope. It was the missing die. Figures.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Danny's dream. Glenn's decency.

All in all, I'd have to say Glenn Brasch is the primary reason I go to Oshkosh every summer. Well, OK, there are some airplanes there, too.

Glenn has written a terrific story in Plane & Pilot about a ride he gave to a kid.

Why would any kid want to do that?” That was the social worker’s response to my offer to take any child flying for free—that is, any child who was a patient at the local cancer center for children. She probably thought I had something up my sleeve, some hidden agenda. I did not. I explained to her that, for me at least, when I was flying, all the world’s problems had a tendency to stay on the ground, and I thought that might be valuable to a child suffering from cancer. She reluctantly posted my offer in the waiting area. I expected my phone to ring off the hook, but I didn’t get a single call for months. I suspected the posting was removed from the wall after my departure.

Read the whole story here.

Glenn lives down in the Tucson area. You know where one of my first destinations will be if I ever finish the RV-7A? Tucson.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Flight 188 data dump

On Wednesday, the National Transportation Safety Board will release more than 400 pages of material it's gathered in its investigation into why the pilots of Northwest Airlines Flight 188 overshot their Minneapolis destination on October 21, 2009. It will offer no conclusions as to what happened.

I'll be live blogging as I go through the data to see if there's anything new there, and encourage you to join in the conversation with your questions and observations.

I've written extensively about the incident:

What the tapes tell us (11/27)

FAA on Flight 188: "We could have done better" (11/13)

Was Flight 188 out of radio contact for three hours? Probably not. (11/5)

FAA smackdown (11/2)

General: Fighter jets should've been airborne over Minneapolis (10/29)

Flight 188: The explanation (10/26)

The 'What if?' scenario (10/23)

Flight 188: Making it add up (10/23)

Aviation by the numbers

If you listened only to the alphabet groups, you'd swear general aviation is on its last legs. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't. A release of data by the U.S. Census Bureau shows the extent to which aviation is changing.

For example, according to the Census Bureau:

  • The number of public use airports dropped to 5,221 in 2007 from 5,233 in 2006. That's 300 fewer airports than 1990, but it's 407 more than in 1980.

  • The number of piston general aviation aircraft increased by 1.9% from 06 to 07.

  • The number of private pilots dropped 1 percent.The number of private pilots airplane rating went down 3.7 percent. The number of student pilots stayed about the same. The number of instrument ratings went up.

    Here's the data.
  • Sunday, December 13, 2009

    Open for business

    You could forgive the RV builders and pilots of the Upper Midwest if they hung a "Closed For the Season" sign on their hangar doors. The nationwide blizzard last week ended a relatively warm fall and the single-digit highs since haven't been fit for man nor Plexiglas canopies, it seems.

    But on Saturday, dozens of them turned out for the quarterly meeting of the Minnesota Wing of Van's Air Force. The Wing was one of the first builder groups in the country, and it now supports a flying RV force of about 70 airplanes. Some of the best and brightest RV builders in the country are in the Minnesota Wing.

    We got to hear from one of them on Saturday. I've written in the past here and on RV Builder's Hotline about Pete Howell, for example. If I didn't know Pete, I'd probably just refer to him as the "I Wish" guy. I wish I had a plane as gorgeous as his RV-9A. I wish I were as smart as he is. I wish I had his ability to experiment and have it turn out well. I wish I were Pete Howell.

    Pete gave us a demonstration of his various experiments with LED lighting, well documented on VAF so I won't repeat them here. Oh, along the "I wish" line: I wish I'd invested in some of the HD landing and taxi lights and I wish I'd waited to decide on the lighting for my airplane so I could LEDs. Sure, I could pull out the Duckworks 50 watt incandescent landing/taxi light I put in about 5 years ago, but the closer I get to finishing the plane, the more I have to stop myself from trying to undo things I've already done. The Whelen strobes, the TruTrak single-axis wing leveler, the old light -- all are fine components of the N614EF, but all could be replaced by better systems if only I had the money and the time. But it's been almost 9 years since I've started the RV-7A and it's important to keep moving forward, not to jog in place.

    Pete also demonstrated the APRS tracking system, which I've written about here. It's an ingenious little system for letting your loved ones -- or others -- track your progress as you fly your RV around the country (insert your own Tiger Woods joke here).

    Here, for example, is the track for Pete on But Pete has gone one better. He can use the system to send e-mail messages, or other messages as he flies. He can even track other APRS-equipped airplanes on a GPS!

    We also heard from insurance broker Sky Smith (right, above). In a wide-ranging discussion on insurance for RVs, here's what I learned: I'm glad I'm building an RV-7A. Scott told of past difficulty getting insurance coverage for RV-8s, various taildraggers, and occasionally an RV-10. I didn't hear anything about the RV-7A.

    I also learned that before you before you build an F1 rocket, you might want to see if you can get insurance coverage for it. It's very difficult, he says.

    I went to the Wing meeting hoping to win one of the 10 Van's Aircraft calendars that wing president Doug Weiler was giving away as door prizes (value $10). Instead, I won this neat 3M Aircraft Paint Restoration Kit (value $95). Pretty cool. Now all I need is a paint job on N614EF.

    As usual, after a get-together with RV builders, the motivation is restored to get cracking on the airplane again, even if by nightfall the temperature was rock bottom in Minnesota. So I went back out to the hangar and made a doubler plate for the Comant antenna that needs to be installed. I only worked on it for about an hour, which is about the limit for unheated T-hangars in December in Minnesota.

    But it beats being closed for the season.

    Tuesday, December 1, 2009