Drones? Meh.

drones

They go by many names: UAVs, drones, remotely piloted vehicles. Whatever you call ‘em, more and more of the aviation news these days seems to focus on this segment of the industry. Blogs and podcasts exclusively dedicated to UAVs have been popping up left and right, and there’s certainly no shortage of enthusiasts and businesses waiting to put these advanced flying machines to work. Or play.

It’s easy to understand the excitement. These drones are small, relatively inexpensive, easy to fly, and — thus far, at least — free from certification hassles and other regulatory burdens. They require no conventional fuel, maintenance, or infrastructure, yet can carry high-definition cameras and other payloads while exploring areas at low-altitude that even a helicopter would be hard-pressed to get to. They can loiter with less noise and disturbance than a rotorcraft, too. In short, they represent a fresh canvas for the operator’s creativity.

New models and capabilities spawn almost continuously from the designers of these micro-aircraft. It’s something those of us in the traditional aviation sectors wish we could lay claim to. I imagine the early days of the 20th century must have felt quite similar to aviation’s pioneers. The future looked limitless. “Just Do It” could have been aviation’s slogan; if you could dream it, you could build and fly it. Today? Not so much. The regulations and paperwork weigh as much as the pilot flying the darn airplane. If they aren’t, you’re probably not “airworthy”.

Drones, on the other hand? From delivering cold beer or your Amazon order to keeping humans out of harms way while fighting fires, collecting intelligence, capturing exciting video footage, and engaging in national defense, they hold the promise of improved safety and convenience for all. It’s hard not to be impressed by displays like this:

But (you knew there had to be a “but”, didn’t you?) at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Every time I see a video, article, or link about drones, my response is “Eh. Who cares?”. I’ll probably offend some folks by saying this, but there’s something about these autonomous devices that turns my blood cold. It’s not that I hate them. I just don’t care about them.

When I think about flying, drones never enter the picture. In fact, I don’t consider operating a drone to be “flying” at all. In my mind, it’s on par with falconry, paper airplanes, kites, and sailboarding. That’s not to say it’s bad; on the contrary, some drone operators look like they’re having the time of their lives and there’s nothing wrong with that. I hold no animosity toward those who view drones and UAVs as the most exciting thing since the integrated circuit. But while there are aviation elements present, it’s not flying in the way I know and love it.

For one thing, the operator/pilot has a much different experience and perspective on flying. There’s no skin in the game when the worst that can happen is the loss of the drone. Operators are solidly anchored to terra firma, looking up at their craft the same way men have looked skyward at the birds since the dawn of time. That awe-inspiring ability to literally transport yourself and others across time and space? Gone.

There’s no physical connection to the flight controls or the invisible fluid through which the craft sails, no seat-of-the-pants experience. And how much satisfaction can you get from a smooth landing when the craft does all the heavy lifting through gyro-stabilization and computer technology? I guess I feel about drones the way some sailboat owners feel about engine-driven boats.

Perhaps the thing I see most lacking in the proliferation of drones is the sense of pride that comes from operating within any community of highly-trained professionals. Pilots definitely fall into that category. On the other hand, it’s difficult to see random individuals who happen to purchase a remote-controlled flying device as belonging to that same cadre. Especially when a typical story reads like this:

After saying “the FAA has got to be responsive to the entire industry,” [FAA UAS office chief] Jim Williams referred to a pair of incidents in which drones caused injuries to people on the ground. One came at an event at Virginia Motor Speedway in which an “unauthorized, unmanned aircraft” crashed into the stands, and in the other a female triathlete in Australia had to get stitches after being struck by a small drone.

Then, Williams segued to a pilot’s recent report of “a near midair collision” with a drone near the airport in Tallahassee, Florida. The pilot said that it appeared to be small, camouflaged, “remotely piloted” and about 2,300 feet up in the air at the time of the incident.

“The pilot said that the UAS was so close to his jet that he was sure he had collided with it,” Williams said.

Or this one:

UAV Causes Medical Helicopter Landing Delay

The landing of a CareFlight helicopter approaching Miami Valley hospital in Dayton, OH was delayed by a small UAV flying in the area, according to the company.

Television station WDTN reports that a CareFlight nurse aboard the helo was the first to spot the small aircraft flying in the vicinity of the hospital. The helicopter reportedly had a “significantly hurt” patient on board at the time.

The company notified both local police and hospital authorities in an effort to find the person operating the UAV before allowing the helicopter to proceed with its approach. The operator was taking aerial photos of a park in the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, which is near the hospital.

By all accounts, heavier-than-air flight had a definite Wild West quality about it in the early days, too. I’ll freely admit that it’s easy to paint with a wide brush where UAV antics are concerned, so maybe I’m simply being closed-minded about drones. Or more accurately, drone operators. But I feel the way I feel about it. I suppose that’s one thing drones and traditional aircraft pilots have in common: they both develop a reputation — deserved or not — based on the media’s incessant bleat of any sensational or negative news.

I’m curious to know if others have a similar reaction to the burgeoning unmanned aircraft industry. What’re your thoughts?

Time is Money

time_is_money2

One of the first things people discover about flying is that it requires an abundance of two resources: time and money. The money part is pretty obvious. Anyone who inquires about flight instruction at a local school will figure that one out before they even take their first lesson. The importance of time is a bit more nebulous.

When I began working as an instructor, I noticed that even in affluent coastal Orange County, at least one of those two assets always seemed to be in short supply. Those who had plenty of money rarely had much free time; they were financially successful because they worked such long hours. Younger pilots typically had fewer demands on their schedule, but funds were limited at best. It reminds me of Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence formula, E=mc2. But instead of matter and energy being interchangeable, it’s time and money. Benjamin Franklin took it a step further in a 1748 letter, concluding that “time is money”.

I learned to fly during a period when both of those elements were readily available. It was a luxury I didn’t appreciate — or even recognize — at the time. It’s probably for the best, since I would have been sorely tempted to spend even more on my addiction.

After flying Part 135 for the past three years, it’s interesting to note how those same limits apply to charter customers despite being much higher up on the proverbial food chain. These restrictions are the very reason Part 91/135 business aviation exists at all.

Case in point: I recently flew a dozen employees of a large retailer around the U.S. to finalize locations for new stores. They were able to visit ten cities in four days, spending several hours working at each destination. Out of curiosity, I ran our itinerary through booking sites like Kayak, Orbitz, and Travelocity to see how a group of twelve might fare on the airlines. Would you be surprised to learn that the answer is “not well”?

Our first leg, three hours in length, would have taken twelve hours and two extra stops on the airlines and actually cost more, assuming business class seats. Some of the subsequent legs wouldn’t have been possible at all on the airlines because they simply don’t serve those destinations. Overall, chartering the Gulfstream IV-SP cost less than trying to do the same trip on an airline. As far as time saved, on an airline, each of those ten legs would have required passengers to be at the airport 90 minutes in advance of their scheduled departure time. That alone would have wasted fifteen hours — the equivalent of two business days.

A chartered aircraft waits for passengers if they’re running late. If they need to change a destination, we can accommodate them. Travelers spend more time working and less time idle, literally turning back the clock and making everything they do more productive. And once we’re airborne, they can continue to do business, preparing for their next meeting and using the cabin as a mobile office. They can conference, spread out papers, and speak freely without worrying about strangers overhearing sensitive information.

This time/money exchange is present on every trip. Since I’m based in Los Angeles, our passengers are often in the entertainment industry. Imagine an artist or band who had a concert in Chicago on Monday, Miami on Tuesday, Denver on Wednesday, and Seattle on Thursday. They need to be in town early for rehearsals, interviews, and appearances. These tours sometimes last weeks or even months. Keeping a schedule like that would be nearly impossible without chartering. Imagine the cast of big budget film needing to be at film festivals, premieres, media interviews, awards shows, and such. Or the leaders of a private company about to go public or meeting with investors around the country prior to a product launch. Franklin was right: time is money.

When I fly on an scheduled airline, the inefficiency and discomfort remind me of why charter, fractional, and corporate aviation will only continue to grow. The price point of private flying doesn’t make sense for everyone, but for those who need it, it’s more than a convenience. It’s what makes doing business possible at all.


This post first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

No Apologies

A simple Cub and a grass runway.  This is flying!

Did you know there are more PhDs in the United States than there are pilots? It’s true. Few individuals with a doctorate are apologetic or shy about their achievement. On the contrary, many of them go so far as to attach this educational status to their very identity, adding it to their name, email signature, business cards, and more. It’s a big deal and they’re all too happy to let people know about it.

Since earning a pilot certificate places one in even more rarefied heights, it always surprises me to hear an aviator speak in apologetic terms about their flying. Typically it happens when they’re with others whom they perceive to be of higher achievement — an airline or military pilot, for example. They’ll say “oh, my plane’s just an old 152″. Or “I only have a sport pilot certificate”. I hate to see that. Whether the subject is their aircraft, training, or experience, there’s no cause for apologies. Quite the opposite. Don’t be fooled by the number of ratings on a pilot’s certificate, or assume they’re a better aviator because their logbook has more hours than yours. The worst physician in the world still managed to earn a Doctor of Medicine degree.

Brent Owens (aka Fixed Wing Buddha) recently wrote about this:

Let me go on record. If you are flying, no matter what kind of airplane, you should hold your head high. You are among a tiny population of people and you have nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it is ludicrous to think otherwise. In a sea of grounded mortals, we have a very special skill that lets us command the air. It doesn’t get much cooler than that, and it doesn’t matter what kind of aerial conveyance you choose.

In fact, I’d take it a step further. The “higher” a pilot goes in the food chain, the less actual flying they’re likely to do. I bet a low-time rag-wing tailwheel pilot could land my Gulfstream a lot better than the average jet pilot could land that taildragger. But for some reason we create this pecking order which is dictated by the size, cost, and speed of the aircraft we fly.

It’s human nature to equate bigger with better — the advertising industry is based on it — but it’s completely illogical. In fact, as the years go by I find my affinity for smaller, simpler, less expensive planes only grows. The Cub, the Citabria, the RV-3. These airplanes provide a more visceral connection between man, machine, and nature. They’re simpler and less expensive to buy, own, and maintain. And they’re not used for practical purposes so much as just enjoying the art of flying. A stick and a throttle. That’s it.

There was a story — I can’t seem to find it now — about an instructor bumping around the pattern with a student in the summer heat in a modest Cessna. He looks up, sees a turboprop flying thousands of feet above, and muses about how lucky those guys have it to be in smooth, fast, air conditioned comfort. The guys in the turboprop notice a 747 flying overhead, up in the stratosphere, and can’t think about much beyond moving up to a “real airplane” that flies a lot faster than 250 knots. Oh, to have lavatories, flight attendants, and travel the world! The bored 747 pilot, on the other hand, looks waaaay down at an airport below, sees a little Cessna flying around the pattern and says to his co-pilot, “Boy that guy’s lucky — I can’t wait to retire and get back to some REAL flying!”

Larger airplanes are just that: larger. Sitting in pressurized comfort at FL450 might seem like the end all/be all to those who fly more “modest” equipment, but I assure you it’s more system management than actual hands-on-the-controls flying. It can take on an antiseptic quality.

And doing the same thing day after day after day? I’ve met more than a few burned-out jet pilots for whom flying is no longer a passion or joy. It has been reduced to a job, nothing more. It’s sad, because they started out with that fire in their belly, that urge to hang out at the airport all day every day. And now? There’s nothing they’d rather do than get away from it all. That’s why I was extremely careful when I started flying professionally. It’s easy to allow the enthusiasm for a shiny jet to lead a person down that unfortunate path.

You didn’t ask for my advice, but I’m going to give it to you anyway. I see a lot of pilots who are always looking to the “next thing” rather than enjoying where they are right now. When they’re in a single, they’re totally focused to jumping into a retractable. Once they fly one, it’s all about moving into a twin. If they’re flying a recip, life seems like it will be “perfect” once they start flying the turboprop. Once they’re flying that, they’re already obsessed with a jet. It makes me sad, because their career will be over before they know it, and they’re well on the path to missing the whole thing.

So no matter what you fly, and whether you do it recreationally or professionally, be proud of your steed, and most of all enjoy every minute in the air. The clock is ticking; every day brings us closer to our final flight. We may not know when that door will close, but rest assured it eventually will. What a shame it would be to reach the end of the road and realize we never savored the journey.

The Ab Initio Flaw

For decades, Japan Airlines ran an ab initio flight school in Napa, CA using Beech Bonanzas

Ecclesiastes tells us there’s nothing new under the sun. Where the pilot shortage debate is concerned, that’s definitely true. More than one industry veteran has wryly noted the “impending pilot shortages” of every decade since the Second World War. And considering the number of pilots trained during that conflict, you could say the shortage history goes back a lot further. How about to the very dawn of powered flight? I mean, Wilbur and Orville could have saved themselves tremendous time and money if only they’d had an experienced instructor to guide them!

Every “pilot shortage” article, blog post, and discussion I’ve seen centers around short-term hiring trends and possible improvements in salary and benefits for aviators. Nobody asked my opinion, but for what it’s worth, it seems both clear and logical that the regional airlines are hurting for pilots. The pay and working conditions at those companies are horrific. Major airlines will probably never have trouble attracting people, however. I don’t know if that qualifies as a pilot shortage. I tend to think it does not. It’s more of a shortage of people who are willing to participate like lab rats in a Part 121 industry cost-cutting experiment.

What the pilot shortage mishegas really has me thinking about is the long-term possibility of ab-initio schemes migrating to the United States and what a profoundly bad thing that would be for aviation at every level.

According to Wikipedia, “ab initio is a Latin term meaning ‘from the beginning’ and is derived from the Latin ab (‘from’) + initio, ablative singular of initium (‘beginning’)”. In aviation, it refers to a method of training pilots. In fact, it’s the de facto technique in use for the majority of airlines around the world. Essentially, foreign airlines will hire people off the street who have no flight time or experience. They are shepherded through the various ratings and certificates necessary to fly an Boeing or Airbus while on the airline’s payroll.

This might sound like a brilliant idea — and to an airline, it probably is. Imagine, no bad habits or “we did it this way at my last job” issues, just well-trained worker bees who have been indoctrinated from day one as multi-pilot airline crew members.

I don’t know if the airlines love ab initio or not. What I do know is that non-U.S. airlines use it because there’s no other choice. The fertile, Mesopotamian breeding ground of flying experience we call general aviation simply does not exist in those countries. Without GA’s infrastructure, there are no light aircraft, flight schools, mechanics, or small airports where aspiring pilots can learn to fly. Those who do manage to get such experience more often than not get it here in the United States.

To put it another way, the “pilot shortage” has been going on in foreign countries since the dawn of aviation, and ab initio is the way they’ve solved the problem in most places.

So what’s my beef with this method of training? To put it simply, in an era of atrophying pilot skills, ab-initio is going to make a bad problem worse. While it’s a proven way of ensuring a steady supply of labor, ab initio also produces a relatively narrow pilot who is trained from day one to do a single thing: fly an airliner. These airline programs don’t expose trainees to high Gs, aerobatics, gliders, sea planes, banner towing, tailwheels, instructing, or any of the other stuff that helps create a well-rounded aviator.

If airlines in the U.S. adopt the ab initio system, the pilots they hire will only experience things that are a) legally required, and b) directly applicable to flying a modern, automated airliner. Nothing else. After all, an airline will only invest what’s necessary to do the job. It’s a business decision. And in an era of cutthroat competition and razor thin profit margins, who could blame them?

The problem is, all those crap jobs young fliers complain about (and veterans seem to look back on with a degree of fondness) are vital seasoning for a pilot. He or she is learning to make command decisions, interact with employers and customers, and generally figure out the art of flying. It’s developing that spidey sense, taking a few hard knocks in the industry, and learning to distinguish between safe and legal.

These years don’t pay well where one’s bank account is concerned, but they are create a different type of wealth, one that’s often invisible and can prove vital when equipment stops working, weather is worse than forecast, or the holes in your Swiss cheese model start to line up.

Thus far, airline ab initio programs haven’t been a major part of the landscape here in the U.S. because our aviation sector is fairly robust. We are blessed with flying jobs which build the experience, skill, and time necessary for larger, more complex aircraft. But it’s easy to see why it might become an attractive option for airlines. For one thing, that darn pilot shortage. The cost of flying has risen dramatically over the past decade while the benefits (read: money) remain too low for too long. Airlines can cure the shortage by training pilots from zero hours… but at what cost?

Coming up through the ranks used to mean you were almost certain to be exposed to some of those elements. That’s why I believe ab initio would be just one more nail in the coffin of U.S. aviation, one more brick in the road of turning us into Europe. While I like visiting The Continent, I do not envy the size or scope of their aviation sector and sincerely hope we don’t go down that path.

Addendum

Apparently I’m not the only one with ab initio on my mind. The day before the deadline for this post, AVweb reported on a major announcement from Boeing:

Now, with its subsidiary company Jeppesen, [Boeing] will undertake ab initio airline pilot training to provide a supply of pilots with an “Airline Transport Pilot License” (certificate in the U.S.) and a Boeing type rating who “will be ready to move into the first officer’s seat,” according to Sherry Carbary, vice president of flight services.

Boeing’s ab initio training program is divided into two parts. The first, run by Jeppesen, will take an applicant—referred to as a cadet—who must hold a first-class medical at the time of application, and put her or him through a screening process. Those who pass will go through 12-18 months of flight training, resulting in, according to David Wright, director of general aviation training, an Airline Transport Pilot License. The second phase involves the cadet going to a Boeing facility for another two months of training where she or he gets a first exposure to a full-motion jet simulator, and that will result in a type rating in a Boeing jet. Wright said that cadets will come out of the $100,000-$150,000 program with 200-250 hours of flying time and will be ready to go into the right seat of an airliner.

Boeing jets are operated by major airlines, not regionals. An American pilot would typically sport several thousand of hours of flight experience before being hired there. Now Boeing is proposing to put 200 hour pilots into their airplanes on a worldwide basis. That won’t fly (yet) in the U.S., where 1,500 hours is currently required for an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. But I believe the ab inito trend bodes ill for airlines and general aviation alike.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

Nashville

Nashville riverfront at night

It’s getting hard to keep track, but I just returned from what was probably my first visit to the city of Nashville. With only one full day to explore, we just hit a few major highlights. Still, it was easy to see why this is one of the fastest growing areas of the southern U.S. Our ambitions were somewhat limited by the fact that our free time here happened to be a Sunday, so while more tourist-centric downtown area was in full swing, other attractions were closed for the day.

Beyond it’s reputation as the center of the Bible Belt and a haven for country music, I wasn’t terribly knowledgeable about what Nashville had to offer. For a city of it’s size, it turns out there’s plenty to do within walking distance of the pedestrian-friendly downtown. I’d love to come back to hear the symphony, catch a Titans or Predators game, visit one of the Civil War-era plantations, or check out the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I thought it particularly impressive that Nashville has a full-fledged opera company. Despite our many well-heeled arts patrons and a population five times as large, the best Orange County can boast is an occasional re-hashed concert version borrowed from Los Angeles.

As always, here are a few highlights from the trusty iPhone 5 camera — with a bit of Snapseed magic applied, of course.

You can almost feel the history in these Civil War era bricks

You can almost feel the history in these Civil War era bricks

Nashville has a population of about 600,000. While that makes it the second largest city in Tennessee, it’s pretty small by southern California standards. Not that this is a bad thing. We didn’t mind the lack of road congestion one bit. And being from the Los Angeles area, I admire any city with a safe, walkable downtown area. Nashville definitely fits that criteria. L.A. is getting better, but it has a long, long way to go.

It's a bit touristy, but Nashville's downtown is well worth seeing. Everything's withing walking distance.

It’s a bit touristy, but Nashville’s downtown is well worth seeing. Everything’s withing walking distance.

The main drag in the area seemed to the section of Broadway southwest of the Cumberland River. Even during the daytime hours, plenty of honky tonks, bars, and restaurants had live music and large crowds. I’d liken it to a small country version of Austin’s famous South by Southwest festival. Nashville had a very balanced feel, equal parts past and present.

Look closely and you'll notice the horse is urinating all over the street.  In L.A., that sort of thing is usually done by a human...

Look closely and you’ll notice the horse is urinating all over the street. In L.A., that sort of thing is usually done by a human…

I recently read an article about the decline of neon signage in the United States and how Los Angeles has some of the greatest examples of neon artwork. Apparently LED lighting is so much cheaper that the it’s rapidly relegating neon to the past. As a result of the article, I’ve been on the lookout for neon signs and noticed that the Broadway area has plenty of high-quality examples. There’s something “vintage” about neon that fits in really well down there.

The old brick facades and colorful neon signs go perfectly together.

The old brick facades and colorful neon signs go perfectly together.

We spent the first part of the day exploring Centennial Park, which is directly adjacent to Vanderbilt University. While we didn’t venture onto the campus, Vanderbilt was recently accorded the distinction of having the happiest students of any major university by The Princeton Review.

There are quite a few Confederate war memorials sprinkled around the area. This one caught my eye for some reason. I’m sure the locals walk by these every day without much of a thought, but it’s something a SoCal native would never see back home.

Civil war memorials like this one can be found throughout the city.

Civil war memorials like this one can be found throughout the city.

Built for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897, one of the park’s most notable features is a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. Though the building is new when compared to the Greek original, at 117 years old, it’s still quite historic by west coast standards. I’ve been to the Acropolis before, and the ancient Parthenon is more rubble than structure, so it’s fascinating to see what it looked like before being destroyed in a 17th century explosion.

This Parthenon replica gave Nashville the nickname "Athens of the South".

This Parthenon replica gave Nashville the nickname “Athens of the South”.

As a foodie, I’d be remiss in not mentioning Nashville’s culinary scene. Travel & Leisure magazine recently polled it’s readership and ranked Nashville as the best city in America for barbeque. It’s kind of shocking to see Memphis in second place and Kansas City a distant third.

True story: I once flew a Los Angeles-to-New York charter trip where we had a scheduled 90 minute stop in Kansas City. Since the airplane had more that sufficient range to make the transcontinental flight, I was curious about the short layover. It turns out the passenger simply wanted some of that famous Kansas City barbeque for lunch. In fact, he insisted we visit a specific restaurant to sample the vittles for ourselves. Imagine paying for the convenience and speed of chartered flight only to put your whole day on pause to eat lunch. That’s the power of Kansas City barbeque.

Anyway, we sampled the Nashville offerings at Jacks’ BBQ and while it was good, I can’t honestly call the Texas beef brisket great. It was a bit dry and I’d have preferred a bit more smoke on it. Other members of the group seemed to have better luck with the smoked Texas sausage and Tennessee pork shoulder.

Next stop: a week on the Big Island of Hawaii. Assuming the two hurricanes barreling toward it get out of the way, that is…