Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A ride for 'the little girl next door'

"H", as we call her publicly now because she's a teacher and you know how people are out there, was the little girl who grew up next door (approximately) when we moved to the neighborhood in 1993.

Now, as I indicated, she's a teacher and, presumably, a good one.

She was around, of course, when I started building the RV-7A in the garage and so when she commented on something about it I posted on Facebook a few weeks ago, I asked her if she'd like a ride. So we made arrangements to meet in Red Wing (MN) last Sunday.

It was awfully bumpy and I figured we'd climb high enough until it smoothed out, and orbit the field until she decided whether we should go farther. I'm pretty particular about the comfort of passengers to whom I'm exposing general aviation. Getting sick doesn't help its image one bit.

Have I mentioned how much I love giving rides to people?

Have I mentioned how much I like the expression passengers get when I make a crosswind turn, and that beautiful RV canopy fills up with a perfect view of America, America?

I made a little souvenir video of the flight for her. It's nothing special compared to some of your big productions I've seen. It's just someone experiencing the occasionally slightly nauseous joy of flight.

As I watching this video over and over again, I noticed something about me too. I'm never more relaxed. I'm never more comfortable. I'm never more sure of who I am. I'm never more at home... than when I'm flying an RV airplane.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


There's an old saying in the homebuilt airplane business. "The only reason to build an airplane is that you want to build an airplane." The same is true for people with polished airplanes, who have to constantly endure the admonishment that it's too much work. "The only reason to have a polished airplane is because you like polishing airplanes."

Big, expensive paint jobs are swell for those with big checkbooks. But park a painted airplane next to a polished one, and the polish attracts the eyeballs every time.

And that's the problem. Given enough exposure to polished aluminum, the defects soon become visible.

Thanks to the reflection of the fluorescent light in the photo above, you can see a couple of examples of something that is all over the plane. Fingerprints. But these are not prints from someone touching the plane. They're fingerprints from the application of Nuvite polish. As the instructions say, "dab" fingerprints of polish on the aluminum, smear with the wool bonnet on a drill or rotary machine (or cyclo machine). Voila!

Last winter, I noticed this happening. Very fine scratches would be put into the aluminum where the finger applied the polish, even if the polish was soon smeared around the AL. Even if the compounding (and cyclo'ing) took place.

At the time, my theory was that the aluminum was so cold, the polish was freezing in place and small amounts of ice scratched the surface.

But over the weekend, I polished a section of wing when it was about 80 degrees, and you can see the result, even though the area was subsequently polished with F7, Grade C, and Grade S polish and a new fleece blanket and then buffed with fresh fleece and flour.

Curiously, this started last year, two years after I first bought the polish. I tossed out a small can of F7, thinking that maybe it was the culprit. But an equally-old can of polish yielded the same results.

Is it possible that polish "goes bad" and causes this problem? We will continue to investigate the mystery.

In the meantime, when you look at my plane, leave your glasses at home.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Aid and comfort

(Reprinted from Van's Air Force)

My RV can do many cool things and take me to many enjoyable places. Last evening I learned it can help do something more: provide aid and comfort to people.

This is Sue and Gary. A few years ago, pretty much on this same spot on the Alexandria, MN apron, Sue said goodbye to her brother, her mother, and her sister in law, when they got in a Bonanza for a trip to Colorado. She'd asked her mother not to go; she just had a feeling.

Her brother's plane crashed in a field not far outside the Twin Cities. He had flown into IMC and as he emerged from the 900-foot overcast, the wing fell off, and then the tail.

I wrote about it for my day job and when she found it on Google, she dropped me an email last week asking if she could talk to me about it and learn more about my observations. "The tone was different than what I've read," she said. "And maybe it's because you're a pilot."

She had read the Aero News Network (please note: By NO stretch of the imagination will I ever be a fan of Jim Campbell's work). She thought it made her brother seem stupid and negligent. It's a good reminder of why we have to be careful when discussing accidents. Stick to the facts; avoid the judgments. Resist the social media urge to shame the pilot.

"Where are you located?" I asked in a return email.

"Alexandria," she said.

"I'll fly up to see you. How's Monday?"

So I did. And I had a story to tell her. It was about how easy it is for humans to make the same mistake her brother made, and until you experience GetHomeItis firsthand, you can't begin to understand the power it holds over even the most experienced pilots.

I told her about my trip to Massachusetts last fall, just three days after attending an Air Safety Foundation seminar on weather traps, specifically, GetHomeItis.

Three days later, I made just about every mistake I was warned not to make.

It can happen to anyone. Unexpected weather killed Scott Crossfield, and he had the Right Stuff.

As I spiraled through the clouds on an ill-advised and unnecessary attempt to land last year, I thought about the article I'd written about her brother. That was just about the time when I had the thought that someone was soon going to be writing about me.

I told her about the statistic I learned at the ASF Forum. The life expectancy of a VFR pilot flying into IMC is about 3 minutes.

The color seemed to drain from her face. She had never heard the statistic before. She wants to write a book about the accident, she told me. She heard a voice while taking a shower not long after her brother's plane crashed. It said the name of the book should be, "Three Minutes."

She wanted to hear how planes come apart. I explained that while the plane separated after it had emerged from the clouds, the damage was probably done while her brother was still in IMC. For all I know, I said, they might've suffered tremendous G forces that made them black out. I don't know. Maybe. Maybe not.

We chatted for about an hour, but there's nothing really you can say to make anyone feel better about losing three family members.

Her husband said she was very touched that I flew up. "Your brother is part of a very small fraternity," I said. "And now you are too. And it's what we do."

It rained while we were having our coffee, and she begged me not to launch into bad weather. If something happened to me, she said, she could never forgive herself.

I'd seen the showers on the hour-long flight up, and they were widely scattered, I assured her. And I'm a very careful pilot who knows a lot more know about GetHomeItis.

As they walked me out to the ramp for my flight home, her husband asked if they could say a prayer for me. Though I'm not religious by any stretch, I said, "sure." And so there we stood as darkness fell, her husband asking for a higher power's protection on this and all future flights.

You fly a lot more carefully, I noticed, when someone you've known for two hours holds your hand and wishes you godspeed.

I sent a text message when I got home, to let them know I arrived home just fine, vowing silently to myself never to put my family in a position of wondering what happened to me that time I went flying.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Oshkosh 2015

There's enough posts about all the cool things to see at Oshkosh this year that I won't bother adding to the list.

Oshkosh, as it has been for a long time, is a social event for me. But, to be honest, I wasn't looking that forward to it this year. Some people I had hoped would be there weren't going this year. Some others who I've seen in the past, well, let's just say we've moved on.

Again this year I was making two runs over. This year, my youngest son, Patrick, and I headed over on Tuesday.

Patrick has thoughts of being a pilot someday but at the moment his priority is finishing up a four-year nursing degree program at Augsburg in Minneapolis.

Our flight in was relatively uneventful, save for the 172 that passed up high while we were following the NOTAM. I swear, I will never understand why people who are able to fly an airplane, are so utterly incapable of reading a document intended to help keep them alive.

We had a great time in the days we were there doing Oshkosh things and visiting people like Sam Weigel and his wife, Dawn, who were way out in Row 134 in the South 40. My pal, Warren Starkebaum, was out there one year and I think I'd like to be out there sometime. It's much quieter -- no helicopters every 4 minutes -- and you get a really good view of the approach to 36L. Sam, who won his category in the AirVenture cup race, has written a great post on his time at OSH.

We also had a nice evening with the great folks at EAA Radio, including the sampling of some cherry stout, I believe.

As usual, I enjoyed people stopping by to see the plane, even though we were stuck wayyyy up back in homebuilt camping. We met a great couple just before we departed. They were from Toronto and invited us to use their condo if we ever fly up for a baseball game. I wonder if I'll ever hear from them again?

I'm not too ashamed to say I spent a great deal of time examining polished airplanes up close. They look great far away but I needed to know whether my work is measuring up against other people.

Oh, sure, I found a few flaws.

I say this with all humility. It does. I saw some nice polish jobs, but it was clear to me that in striving for perfection -- I've never achieved it, of course -- I have set a good standard.

We left on Thursday morning because Patrick had to work that evening (and was departing for New York early on Friday) and Carolie and I had tickets for Caroline Smith and also Black Joe Lewis at the Minnesota Zoo.

Want to hear some great cockpit resource management? Here's my kid.

On the way home, Patrick said, "I wonder how high those clouds are?"

"Let's go find out," I said.

Have I mentioned how much I love my RV? You can be at Oshkosh for breakfast, fly home for lunch, do laundry and take a shower in the afternoon, have dinner and a concert, and be back in the air the next morning, headed for Oshkosh.

On Friday, my oldest son, Sean, and I headed back. As luck would have it, my builder pal, Warren, was passing overhead at the time, so we flew over "together", several miles apart and chatting all the way.

Sean wasn't all that sure he wanted to stay until Sunday (which is code for "he didn't want to") but once we landed, he was all in.

This time we were given 18R. I haven't flown that approach in the five times I've landed at Oshkosh but for some reason it struck me as trickier.

I used to watch people make this approach and marvel at the rapid descent, tight turn, and spot landing ability they had. Unfortunately, when I made the rapid descent, tight turn, and landed spot on, the GoPro was out of batteries. But trust me: It was great.

Fortunately, my RV pal, Brad Benson and the rest of the South St. Paul RV crew had arrived the night before and we were able to hook up for good socializing.

The highlight was going to the Charcoal Pit restaurant where Sean sang some karaoke. The Collins clan is not known for singing voices and certainly not for singing in public. But there was my kid, singing before strangers ("People Are Strange" - Doors). The B-52 is cool. The Raptor is cool. Even stumbling across the Little River Band was cool. But seeing my kid stepping out of a comfort zone? That was coolest.

The only downside of Oshkosh this year were the sad exhibit halls, where so much consolidation has taken place, that the empty spots are being taken up by crappy flea market peddlers - a LOT of flea market peddlers.

A friend of mine who runs an avionics company says that although experimental projects in the pipeline when the economy collapsed were completed, there haven't been anywhere near enough new builders to sustain business models. It feels as though it'll be Dynon and Garmin who emerge with everyone else giving up. Even Avery Tools wasn't there this year.

I'm not entirely sure how GA is going to survive all of this.

But that's a topic for another day.

Sean and I left on Sunday morning, taking about an hour and half from start-up to touchdown in South St. Paul, just enough time for him to go home and change, and get to Target Field to watch the Twins and his favorite --the Yankees -- play.

I've heard enough people over the years talking about their memories of spending time at Oshkosh with their dads. When we're gone, these are all we leave behind.

I love my RV airplane.

(Photos by Patrick Collins)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Just tell me where you are!

For the longest time, I've wanted to fly into Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport to watch a Cleveland Indians game and over the weekend, my youngest son -- also an Indians fan -- and I did just that.

It was a thrilling approach to a great airport. My son has put some video up on Facebook of the fantastic approach to Runway 6L and as soon as he changes the permissions, I'll provide a link (update: Here you go).

We watched Saturday night's game and wanted to stay for Sunday's but the 1:30 start time and a front moving in convinced us to try to get out of Dodge, knowing we'd have to hopscotch our way through it.

Our first planned stop was to the Sandusky County Airport and we planned to re-evaluate there and wait things out, but we ran into low cloud cover about 10 miles out and I had to do a careful 180 while my son found us another airport. We ended up watching the rain and mist in Huron County. Nice little terminal building, but the constant beep-beep-beep of some alarm behind a locked door drove us crazy.

As things lifted, we hopped 14 miles through mist to Sandusky County, rain beating the crap out of the paint job on the prop. We were right at minimums with a mile visibility and it required all of our concentration. The workload was more than manageable with two people. We were vigilant and we made a ton of radio calls along the way, and the Garmin 296 called out obstructions which we picked up. A mile visibility in an RV is good for about 20 seconds. Fly over a nice straight road -- not a problem in Ohio -- and be ready.

We spent an hour in Sandusky -- long enough to find out the Indians again had zero offense against Oakland, and then as things brightened we headed for Bowling Green (Wood County) and walked into town to find some grub.

By the time we walked back (seriously, Dunkin Donuts: What's the deal with closing at 3 p.m.?), the western skies were brightening, and the METARs were improving. We took off and we had 6 miles visibility and ceilings up around 2900, and it was a nice flight down low. Ohio has gotten a ton of rain but things were a beautiful green, if a soggy green.

As we neared our favorite stop (which I ignored because I thought the FBO would be closed by then), we heard a pilot announce he was on a "GPS 1 approach to Dekalb County" from the west. We were approaching from the East.

This is one of the things that drives me crazy about IFR pilots. When they make a position report, they report where they are in their instrument procedures, but not where they are in relation to the airport.

I quizzed him about his locations, "Well...uh... I'm on the GPS One approach," he said.

"Are you inbound for landing and how far out are you, we're eastbound just north of the field..."

"I don't have you on my TCAS, we're at 2000 descending."

I was at 1700 and we didn't have him on the ZAON unit either. A minute later, son Patrick saw him -- a Citation -- on final.

The pilot was completely UNABLE to tell us where he was and I hear this all of the time with IFR pilots. What good is making a position report if your report is unintelligible to the VFR pilot? Just tell me where you are!

Another habit we encountered is the rapid-pace at which VFR pilots make their position calls, including the most important part of the call -- the airport. I do this too at my own field and I'm going to stop doing it.

A position report isn't just a requirement to zip through; it has a purpose and we have to be sure it's doing anyone some good.

Clearly, and slowly, say the airport name, give your position, then pause a second and clearly and slowly give the airport name again.

This is especially important for those of us transitioning unfamiliar airspace. Yes, the frequency can be busy, but it's the safe thing to do and that has to be the priority.

By the way, on the flight in from Cleveland, we got great service fro Cleveland approach. At one point, what with haze being thick, we had conflicting traffic and approach told us to hit a steep right turn (which you can't hear in this audio, but trust me, it got my attention). After the conflict, I thanked the controller for helping me (which you also can't hear) and he apologized for the late warning (which you can hear).

The flight in to Burke was particularly fun as we were racing another aircraft. Guess who won?

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Keeping the neighbors at wing's length

(Posted from the day job)

The Star Tribune story today on small airports and the challenges from the encroachment of neighbors is one that's being played out all across the country.

Many airports, as the Associated Press reported a couple of weeks ago, are being closed to turn them into more housing developments and industrial parks.

Others, like South St. Paul's Fleming Field, have somewhat warmer relations with their community, provide jobs in their territory, and are deeded to the city (as the Navy did for South St. Paul many years ago) requiring them to remain an airport.

How a small airport and neighborhoods can co-exist. At Fleming Field, two homes are being torn down (the owner of at least one was more than happy to sell), and some trees on the other end of the neighborhood are being cut down.

Will it make a big difference? Probably not. But the FAA has its rules and the FAA rules.

I videotaped a flight around the airport today to provide an additional perspective on today's article.

Sit back and enjoy your flight.

Monday, June 22, 2015

NTSB: Aerobatic maneuver killed Tony Kelly

Many of us have been waiting along time to find out why Tony Kelly's RV's broke up over Hamilton Township, New Jersey in late 2013.

Tony, an air traffic controller, was a great friend on Van's Air Force and his loss probably hit the RV community harder than any other fatal crash since Bill Benedict, a Van's Aircraft executive, and his son were killed in April 2000.

An RV-7A, obviously, shouldn't break up in the air. That it did caused the usual amount of speculation -- he had suffered a damaged rudder some time earlier, and a Van's service bulletin on elevator hinges all fueled massive amounts of speculation.

The National Transportation Safety Board has now released its report. And it suggests Kelly was performing aerobatic maneuvers that exceeded the plane's design limits.

After taking off, the pilot climbed the experimental amateur-built airplane to 6,500 feet mean sea level in visual meteorological conditions; the airplane remained in level flight for about 13 minutes and was traveling about 130 knots indicated airspeed. The airplane then suddenly lost about 3500 feet in altitude, accelerated to about 220 knots, and reversed direction within a 10 second period. Moments later, the airplane was observed traveling in a northwesterly direction at a low altitude, almost completely upside down at one point, with pieces of the airplane falling to the ground. Recorded radar data revealed that the airplane had entered a steep descending and accelerating left turn, and portions of the empennage separated from the airplane. The airplane continued on a descending, turning flight path until it impacted terrain. A postimpact fire ensued.The wreckage path was about ½-mile long and contained three distinct areas of debris. The first area contained the lower half of the rudder. The second area contained the vertical stabilizer, the rudder balance weight, the left horizontal stabilizer, the left elevator, the left wingtip, the left elevator balance weight, and the cockpit canopy—all of which had separated from their mounting locations. The third area contained the main wreckage (the fuselage, engine, and wings), which struck the top of a tree, fell to the ground, and came to rest inverted. Examination of the wreckage revealed no evidence of an inflight fire, explosion, flight control failure, bird strike, or any preexisting structural anomaly.Review of the airplane’s design revealed that at an aerobatic gross weight of 1,600 pounds, the airplane complied with the +6/-3G standards of the FAA’s aerobatic category.

It had a maximum maneuvering speed of 124 knots and a never exceed speed of 200 knots. At the time of the inflight breakup, the airplane was traveling 20 knots above the published never exceed speed.A friend of the pilot noted that he had seen the pilot recover after falling out of a maneuver at low altitude before, and that it was not uncommon for the pilot to sometimes fall out of a maneuver (loop and/or roll). Review of a video taken by his friend revealed that, during that flight, the pilot performed a left roll. During that maneuver, the pilot allowed the nose to drop and the airplane lost approximately 1,000 feet of altitude.

The accident airplane’s abrupt and sudden maneuvering, which exceeded its design limitations, is consistent with the pilot’s loss of control after attempting an aerobatic maneuver.

The NTSB used a video from Vladyslav V. Karpayev (known on VAF as "Vlad") in making its determination. In an early flight, it showed Kelly allowing the nose to drop, losing approximately 1000 feet in the maneuver.

In its report and accompanying 23-page structural analysis, it noted that there was no evidence of previous damage, and that a service bulletin from Van's on cracks on the elevator showed no evidence of any problem in this area, proving that, despite speculation at the time, the SB was unrelated to this accident.

Monday, June 15, 2015

An RV takes us to Rockabilly

As much fun as I've had with the RV-7A since its first flight three years ago Saturday, I haven't been able to share it as much as I would like with my wife.

She's not much of a flier. She's been game a few times -- a hop to Madeline Island, a picnic on Lake Superior, chili in Rushford, and a Trampled by Turtles concert in Mankato -- but that's pretty much it. She doesn't have her "sea legs" where flying is concerned and I'm not one to force her. I thought of that as I flew back to Massachusetts a few weeks ago. It was pretty rough over Ohio. For some reason it's always rough over Ohio.

I was alone; she had taken a commercial flight the day before, and I kept thinking, "if anyone was with me right now, they'd never fly again."

For many spouses, the joy of flying isn't shared, so we have to remember that at its basic reason to exist -- an RV airplane gets you somewhere.

Last Friday, "somewhere" was Redwood Falls, Minn., which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. But there's a casino there -- Jackpot Junction -- and when our favorite -- Brian Setzer -- and George Thorogood teamed up for a summer tour, I quickly bought tickets last February and ended up center stage, fourth row on the aisle.

Because we both had to work on Friday, driving was out of the question. It would be three hours and the concert started at 8. Besides, I have this airplane, you know.

I waited too long to reserve motel rooms but was able to find one at the cheapest joint in town, which also happens to be right next to the airport.

The flight out was bumpy, as befits an 80-degree day in Minnesota. Some noise on the radio, which first surfaced when I was giving airplane rides in North Adams, Mass., a few weeks ago returned, much to both of our consternation.

We took off at 5:30 and landed at 6:15, walking about a mile to the motel -- maybe less so as there's no fence around the airport so we cut through the farm implements dealer's lot.

No room.

The motel never got our reservation, or said he never got the reservation. And there were no rooms because the bird flu epidemic has brought dozens of workers into the region to fight it.

But he let us drop our luggage and we hopped a casino shuttle. Shortly, we were living the good life.

Brian Setzer, then George Thorogood. Awesome, magic carpet!

The concert ended around 11 or so, so we hopped the shuttle back to the motel, picked up the suitcase we'd planned for our overnight, and hoofed it back to the airport. It was a nice warm night and a pleasant walk.

We were both pretty tired but I filed for a 12:40 a.m. takeoff, pulled up the tie-downs, and patrolled the runway for deer.

I wasn't happy at all with the run-up; the mag drop was more than I'm comfortable with. I got it down to about a 70 RPM drop and that would have to do. There was no moon, but I was comfortable I'd be able to maintain something of a horizon, especially with the Tru Trak autopilot.

It's a big, black hole between the outskirts of Minneapolis, with a few towns in between. A loss of an engine would be bad news; I couldn't even pick out a highway.

I couldn't get the cylinder head temperature below 390, no matter how much I leaned. But the engine was otherwise performing fine and I considered asking Minneapolis Approach for permission to enter Class B and go over the top of the big airport. Why not? There was nobody else in the air and nobody on the radio. But I didn't, landing back at South St. Paul around 1:30, my wife actually clapping as I settled onto the runway. Yahtzee!

We were back at the house by 2, a whirlwind tour that reinforced the value of an RV airplane.

Post script: On Saturday, I diagnosed the problem as coming from the passenger headset. I swapped out another pair and the noise disappeared. What was going on inside there, I don't know. But I've wanted to give the passenger the same comfort I have, so I've ordered another set of Lightspeed 2 headsets.

On Sunday, I monitored the GRT EIS 4000 and saw something odd. The EGT (exhaust gas temperature) on the #3 cylinder would be much lower at idle, although it would come back to a proper level once the throttle was pushed in.

Is this a problem? I don't know. I've sent the data off to Savvy Analysis to see if this is at all indicative of the early stages of a stuck valve. I'll let you know.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

To Rushford for chili!

Although N614EF and I haven't ventured to that many airports outside of Minnesota, it's hard to beat our two favorite ones in the competition for the "best airport ever" title.

Sky Harbor Airport in Duluth sits right on Lake Superior, is a 40-step walk from the beach, and is Minnesota's version of the famed -- and late -- Meigs Airport in Chicago. It's a place where my wife -- who is not overly excited by flying -- will go enthusiastically.

But there's one thing Sky Harbor doesn't have -- at least in our visits so far -- an unmatched gregariousness.

That's what separates Rushford Airport in southeast Minnesota apart.

It sits atop a bluff in "bluff country", offering lovely views of the surroundings below.

But it's the people we've met there that makes the 80-mile trip (by air) from South Saint Paul so rewarding.

Yesterday, I flew down for EAA Chapter 919's annual chili feed. The chapter is incorporated in Winona, but, according to one founding member, WONA isn't a very aviator-friendly spot, so many of their activities take place in Rushford. Good choice.

It's possible to camp on site and if you do, you can use the facilities -- a house, really -- at the airport terminal. Our host said if you want bikes, they'll bring theirs over.

Rushford used to have a courtesy car -- a Toyota -- but it died and they haven't convinced the town to pony up $1,000 or so for a new one. Too bad, because there are shops and restaurants in the region that visitors would most certainly patronize, if they had a way to get off the bluff.

True, our hosts did say "we'll bring one of our cars over" if you decide to visit, but nonetheless it would be wise for the region to invest in a beater so they don't have to do without a car.

In that vein, I'm kicking myself. Last February I traded in my 2004 Chevy Cavalier -- still in great working order -- so that my wife and I could have a new car (a payoff for her unwavering support and sacrifice during the 11 or 12 years I was building a plane). The dealer -- Luther Subaru -- offered only $800. It didn't occur to me at the time that I just should have donated it to the Rushford Airport.

If you're in the upper Midwest, it's worth visiting at your next opportunity. Starting next month, there'll be a hamburger feast on the first Saturday of every month.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Saint Paul to South St. Paul

I went out yesterday, one of the more beautiful days of the Minnesota spring, to see if I could find a colleague, who was running her dog up in Pine City. No luck, but it was a fine flight which I wanted to take before the earth started heating up and causing all sorts of turbulence. The return -- over Saint Paul -- gave me a chance for a little air tour. It's fun to look down at things in this video, because I'm too busy flying when I'm actually flying to sightsee. There were five planes to contend with in the pattern in South St. Paul, but I shoehorned in. It's funny: Once you fly to Oshkosh, fitting five planes into a pattern at a non-towered airport doesn't seem like that big of a deal.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Want to be a pilot? Be a good liar

(From the day job)

Investigators carry boxes from the apartment of Germanwings airliner jet co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, in Duesseldorf, Germany, Thursday March 26, 2015. On Thursday, French prosecutors said Lubitz, the co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525, "intentionally" crashed the jet into the side of a mountain Tuesday in the French Alps. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

In the 24 hours since we learned the first officer of a German airliner intentionally drove it into the French Alps, we've been told plenty about the mental health screening of pilots.

In the United States, a pilot needs a pilot certificate and a medical certificate to fly any aircraft, including commercial airliners. For airline pilots over 40, it must be renewed every six months.

The FAA form asks a couple dozen questions about medical history. Here's the one I filled out for my last medical a year or so ago.

Below this section, the FAA asks for details on any visit to a health care provider in the previous term.

Answer "yes" to any question, or indicate any visit to a health care provider, and the FAA flight surgeon is going to probe deeper and, potentially, ground you. That's an expensive pain in the neck for private pilots like me, but for a commercial pilot it could lead to the end of a career.

There's a way to prevent this from happening: Don't answer "yes" and don't go to the doctor.

On more than one occasion, for example, I've been infirmed enough to need an ambulance, but delayed calling for one while I debated whether it was worth giving up flying. I currently fly on a "special issuance" after losing my medical certificate. Maintaining it is time consuming and expensive. I could've avoided it -- maybe -- by withholding some information on the FAA form.

For sure, there's a penalty for lying on the form. The FAA could pull your ability to fly forever. But when a career is at stake, many pilots consider it worth it.

In aviation, the warning among pilots is always "don't tell the flight surgeon anything." The culture is distrustful of government in the first place and considers the FAA medical examiner "the enemy."

This, of course, is counterproductive. The pilot is usually the first on the scene of a crash. But we're talking a livelihood and even if commercial pilots suffer from the same maladies -- mental and physical -- as the rest of the population (they do), the FAA medical certificate procedure discourages seeking help. In addition, many pharmaceuticals are banned substances under FAA guidelines.

This is why some pilots flew drunk for years. Ask Joe Balzer, who was one of the three Northwest Airlines pilots who flew a DC-9 from Fargo to Minneapolis in March 1990. All three were hammered. Balzer went to prison.

Subsequently, the infamous flight led the airlines, the unions, and the FAA to coordinate programs that could get an alcoholic some help.

“First they can save their lives. Then they can save their careers,” he told me in a 2009 interview. He now encourages pilots to seek help. And airlines are more proactive in providing help these days.

But pilots remain suspicious that the FAA is a partner in these endeavors. A year or so ago, it tried to expand its reach by grounding overweight pilots -- based only on their body-mass index -- on the theory that they also suffered from sleep apnea and may be too tired to pilot an airplane. The pushback was immediate and the FAA rescinded its proposed rule, but a new rule was due to be released this month that allows pilots to keep flying while the doctor investigates their sleep habits.

For non-commercial pilots, efforts in Congress and at the FAA have restarted recently to get rid of the third-class medical certificate (the one for private pilots), and depend solely on self-monitoring. The FAA has generally resisted the initiatives -- a lot of older pilots fly illegally rather than risk an official FAA grounding -- and it's unclear what effect the new spotlight on medical standards in the wake of the disaster in the Alps will have.

"I’m uncertain what more we should want or expect," Patrick Smith writes on Ask the Pilot. "Pilots are human beings, and no profession is bulletproof against every human weakness. All the medical testing in the world, meanwhile, isn’t going to preclude every potential breakdown or malicious act. For passengers, at certain point there needs to be the presumption that the men and women in control of your airplane are exactly the highly skilled professionals you expect them to be, and not killers in waiting."

That reality probably won't survive in the aftermath of the Germanwings murders. Uninformed media and political pressure generally exceeds a standard of reasonableness in matters like this, leading to new procedures that create the illusion of additional safety.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Chasing Oil

It took a few months longer than I'd hoped-- hey, it's cold in Minnesota and you can only breathe so many kerosene fumes from the heaters! -- but the annual condition inspection has been completed. The goal has been to slowly move the annual date to the middle of winter from its original June so that I can have the plane "grounded" when I'm not likely to fly anyway. Mission accomplished.

I didn't find anything serious during the inspection, but a few weeks ago, I did find more oil in the cowl than I care for.

Some comes from the oil screen plug, which has a particular torque value that always seemed too low. It's something like "finger tight and 135 degrees," or something.

But it's hard to find the source of the drips because the oil flies all over the place in the cowling once it's pressurized by ram air.

For example, this is the picture of things a few weeks ago when I first started exploring:

Looks to me like it's coming from that cover near the oil return, and therein lies the problem. It's pretty hard to figure out for sure where it's coming from.

But then Dan Baier had a suggestion. Clean up the engine and wipe off the oil, and then spray things with a foot powder. So I did. I waited for it to dry -- it provides a "white" cover -- then took the plane out to the ramp and ran up the engine for 10 minutes.

This is roughly the area:

Things look pretty good, right?

I should point out that the worst thing I ever did was what everyone suggested I should do: put a "whistler hole" in the oil breather tube. It spits out oil (and water) which gets everywhere. It's nearly impossible, it seems, to get the tube itself to drop it drips on the exhaust stack (where it would burn up) because of the engine mount which gets in the way.

I suspect there's also a problem -- well, not really a problem -- that with this engine, if I fill to capacity (about 8 quarts) with oil, it immediately pukes a bit of it overboard. I've heard that's the case with a lot of airplane engines.

I did find one area of concern, and it's the case. Here's a shot from the front.

You can probably see a little oil coming out near where that bolt and nut are. That would account for the occasional drip of oil I see in the front of the engine.

Now, the problem here is it's pretty impossible to get wrenches on either one of those locations, although I did and gave it a little tug; it was pretty snug.

A check of the rest of the engine did not reveal anything suspicious, so I put the cowling back on and took her flying for the first test flights post-inspection.

Afterward, I just looked in the back of the bottom cowling and saw a few drips of oil directly under the oil strainer and the usual mess around the breather tube, including drips of water. I hate that breather tube!

I also determined that what I thought was oil running down the gear leg when I first started the firewall-forward inspection, was probably avgas, coming out of a small drain hole I made in the filtered air box. I've always gotten fuel drilling in there -- possibly after shutdown or from overpriming. Even after 175 hours, I'm still learning things about what makes the engine happy with starting and I see this as a lessening problem.

But the oil drips cause me concern anyway because I don't really know the difference between routine and worrisome. Airplane engines are dirty things. Beautiful. Just dirty.

But at least mine doesn't have athlete's foot.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Rutan back to Oshkosh

Have I mentioned how much I love the new EAA since Jack Pelton took over?

No? Oh, well an announcement from Oshkosh tonight reveals another step forward in an attempt to clean up the mess created by the previous EAA administration and its imports, who alienated just about everyone in aviation not worth alienating.

Here's today's news release:

Burt Rutan, the visionary aircraft designer whose innovations made history and changed the aviation world, will be back at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in 2015 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his iconic VariEze aircraft.

EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2015, the 63rd annual Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in convention, will be held July 20-26 at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh.

Rutan’s designs have been groundbreaking for more than 40 years, beginning with the VariViggen in the early 1970s through the concepts that became the SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo vehicles that are launching the era of space tourism. His use of canard wings and composite materials changed the look and efficiency of homebuilt aircraft, with more than 1,000 airplanes based on his designs now flying in the U.S. alone.

“There are few individuals in the history of aviation who can match Burt Rutan’s imagination and accomplishments,” said Jack Pelton, EAA chairman of the board. “His presentations are eagerly anticipated whenever he is in Oshkosh. Although he officially ‘retired’ several years ago, his innovative mind continues to push forward with new concepts and ideas that he’ll share at EAA AirVenture in 2015.”

Why is this significant? Because a few years ago, according to legend, someone high-ranking in aviation -- as Robert Goyer of Flying Magazine notes -- said Rutan is a "failure" and questioned why anyone would write an article about him.

The only thing I can come up with is perhaps that Rutan's impact on the certificated market has been minimal compared to his huge successes elsewhere. The Starship was a commercial failure, to be sure, though its small base of owners loved it out of all proportion to its overall sales figures. At some stage of their development, Rutan had an impact on the design of a few other certified or to-be-certified airplanes, including the Eclipse, the Visonaire Vantage and others. Moreover, the impact of Rutan's thinking on the thousands of engineers who daily apply their Rutan-inspired judgment in the crafting of the next generation of airplanes is impossible to calculate.

Then again, judging Rutan by how he measured up commercially is like judging Van Gogh by his commercial success during his lifetime. Each man painted his canvasses to please an audience of one. The results in both cases were spectacular works of art in the case of Van Gogh, and spectacular works of art/technology in the case of Rutan.

In terms of achievements, all Rutan did (in no particular order) was successfully design a private spacecraft and launch system, single-handedly invigorate the homebuilt aircraft movement, popularize the use of composites in aircraft design, dream up an airplane that successfully flew non-stop and unrefueled around the world, and create a worldwide intellectual aerodynamics movement that is vibrant and active to this day. And I'm leaving a lot of good stuff out. A lot.

The rumors around Oshkosh in recent years was that Rutan got wind of the comments and was justifiably upset, so much so that former EAA boss Rod Hightower released this statement at the time:

"EAA, and all our staff, have the highest regard for the legendary Burt Rutan and his incredible career. His many contributions and achievements – from being named one of Time Magazine's “Most influential people in the world” to his being awarded the Lindbergh Medal, and dozens of other aviation and business honors – show that Burt Rutan is a man of achievement who embodies the American spirit and all the good it reflects."

Maybe Rutan has been around Oshkosh since, maybe not. I haven't seen him since the White Knight was at Oshkosh before all of this broke.

No matter. Rutan is return to Oshkosh and Pelton and the gang are putting the EAA back together the way it once was.

Just don't ask Rutan about climate change.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Float flying in Seattle

If I could do it over again, I might consider being a pilot at Kenmore Air in Seattle.

Or I'd be Brady Lane of the EAA.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The approach to St. Maarten

If you're an aviation fan -- and why would you be here if you weren't? -- you've probably seen videos and pictures of the arrival end of Runway 10 in St. Maarten. It's where the jets pass just a few feet above a crowded beach.

What does it look like from the cockpit of a 747?

KLM has just posted a video with the answer.

A beautiful huge baby-blue KLM 747 used to fly into Minneapolis St. Paul back when Northwest Airlines ruled the skies overhead. It was a spectacular time every Sunday afternoon when it departed. I haven't seen it in years.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Don't take selfies when you're flying at night

It's hard for anyone who has flown an airplane to understand the jaw-dropping foolishness documented in a National Transportation Safety Board report that blames a Colorado plane crash on a pilot taking selfies, according to the Denver Post.

Amritpal Singh, and his passenger were killed when their small plane went down near Watkins, Colorado last May 31.

In its probable cause report issued last week, the NTSB said...

An onboard recording device (GoPro) was found near the wreckage and the files were recovered. Based on the available information, it is likely that the GoPro files were recorded on May 30 and May 31, 2014, with the final GoPro file recorded during the 6-minute flight in the traffic pattern. The accident flight was not recorded. The GoPro recordings revealed that the pilot and various passengers were taking self-photographs with their cell phones and, during the night flight, using the camera’s flash function during the takeoff roll, initial climb, and flight in the traffic pattern.

Some news organizations are reporting that GoPro footage showed that just before it crashed, the pilot was taking a selfie. That's incorrect, as the NTSB noted.

The actual report from those analyzing GoPro footage (available here)from the camera in the crash didn't really provide any evidence that when the pilot lost control of his plane, it was because a flash went off and blinded him.

In fact, none of the video footage recovered was from the doomed flight, so there is no proof of the NTSB's conclusion.

But the NTSB found other videos on the camera from a flight just before the flight which crashed, which it said shows a "pattern of behavior" by the pilot.

The crash occurred on a flight an hour or so later. The pilot was in the clouds, and couldn't tell which way was up. He was an instrument-rated pilot and should have been able to rely on the plane's instrumentation, but instead he climbed, lost airspeed, and the plane lost lift and spiraled to the ground, killing the pilot and his passenger.

The NTSB is doing something here it normally doesn't do: guessing that the pilot was blinded by taking selfies and unable to see the instruments.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Tail rotor separation blamed for Oshkosh crash

The NTSB has issued a probable cause for one of the accidents at this year's AirVenture at Oshkosh.

The more serious accident, the Breezy accident in which a passenger died, has yet to be settled.

But the NTSB has finished its investigation in the crash of a Mosquito.

Just after takeoff, the experimental, amateur-built helicopter started to rotate and then impacted the ground in a level attitude, which resulted in substantial damage to the helicopter. Examination revealed that one tail rotor blade had separated from the tail rotor and gearbox assembly and that the blade had separated cleanly from the assembly; neither the collar nor the pins used to secure the blade were located. The pilot reported that he had been testing this tail rotor design for 4 years. A tension/torsion strap and two steel pins were used to retain the blade. The strap was not completely restricted from movement, and, over time, movement and wear resulted in the failure of the retaining assembly. The tail rotor assembly was a unique design and was not used in any other application.
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