Fifty Classic Destinations for Pilots

fifty-classic-destinations

Pilots tend to be Type A personalities, dedicated and goal-oriented. That’s a useful asset for a student, but once the check ride goal has been successfully achieved, the structured learning environment vanishes. Gone are the syllabus, instructor, and PTS. The fresh-faced aviator is released (or should that be “pushed”?) out of the nest like a baby bird being forced to fly. It can leave him or her wondering what comes next.

Sure, you’re free to go to the airport and take wing. But to where, and for what purpose? There’s always the 100 dollar hamburger, but you can only do that for so long. Advanced training is another possibility, whether that’s aerobatics, another rating, or an endorsement of some kind. But sooner or later, even the most ambitious and well-funded among us is going to leave the schoolhouse and enter the big bad world of self-directed flying. The transition is not always smooth or easy.

Some pilots have a surprisingly difficult time with this divergence in the proverbial road, unable to figure out what to do or how to use their skills in a way that keeps their own interest piqued for the long-term. Others never develop sufficient comfort with solo flying to spread their wings even after they earn them. These are prime candidates for dropping out, pilots who may slowly disappear from the aviation scene. I hate to see that.

One way to solve the problem is to expand your horizons by going places. Not only is it interesting, but it builds confidence for those who lack it. And that’s where a friend of mine comes in. Ney Grant and I go back about fifteen years. We were both active members of the Cessna Pilots Association and came up through the ranks together. Both of us owned Skylanes at roughly the same time, but I ended up taking the professional career route, whereas he moved up to a six-seat Centurion and passed the years doing exploring the western United States to a degree few other C-210 pilots can boast.

Ney recently asked me to take a look at a book he’s written which details his most notable destinations. I don’t normally expect much from self-published work. Anyone can put out a book these days, but the democratization of publishing does nothing to assure quality. Take a look at a random blog and tell me I’m wrong.

Thankfully, Fifty Classic Destinations for Pilots was a pleasant surprise. I’ll put it this way: the book was pretty enough that I didn’t take it on the road. It was a little too nice to let it get creased and bent up in my already overstuffed computer bag. But I did read it after returning home and it’s much bigger and more professional looking than I was expecting.

I’ve traveled to quite a few places and was for many years a subscriber to Pilot Getaways, not to mention the countless aviation blogs and magazines that come across my desk. But Ney managed to hit on quite a few spots I’ve never been to, many of which are in my own back yard. Some I’ve never even heard of, while other destinations I know well. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been to Catalina, Las Vegas, or San Luis Obispo (my wife’s from SLO). It was fun comparing spots I’ve been to with his coverage of fresh destinations.

I enjoyed the mix of airports, too. Some are quite urban, others border on bush flying, so there’s something in there for just about everyone. And since Ney flies a Centurion rather than a Super Cub or other off-road-ish vehicle, the spots are accessible to most GA pilots. The Centurion has many wonderful qualities, STOL performance is not one of them.

If Fifty Classics was comprised purely of dry destination content, it wouldn’t stand out from the crowd, but it includes personal travel stories, off-beat encounters, lesson learned, and so on. On one adventure he describes getting sick in mid-flight and diverting to Reno. I think it was food poisoning — something I’ve had the bad fortune to experience while flying. In fact, I’m planning a post about that in the near future. These little stories help break up the travelogues and add a personal touch you don’t find in most books.

This is not a Photoshopped image.  But I assure you there's a simple and logical explanation in the book.

This is not a Photoshopped image. But I assure you there’s a simple and logical explanation in the book.

Travel and destination material aside, I enjoyed following his sometimes painful growth as an aviator. For example, he landed at the famous Chicken Strip, only to learn that it’s probably not a place he was comfortable with in the 210. Or another story where he took off the top of a tree while landing an a familiar but high density airfield. It also adds a sense of realism to what he’s doing. It’s not always sunshine and roses; there are risks to be considered! Speaking of which, I won’t spoil the ending for you, but one tale involves lashing kayaks to the top of each wing before taking off. Apparently that one has generated some feedback from the inter webs.

Ney’s photographs are not just of airplanes, airports or terrain, but also of family, pets, friends, volunteers, and so on. It speaks of a richer experience than just going somewhere for vacation or to climb a mountain (although he does plenty of that, too).

Finally, the quality of the writing and the way the volume is organized belies the self-published nature. The design looks and feels more like a book that’s had a professional editorial staff working on it. The color scheme, typography, and overall layout are excellent. Most of my experience publishing is web-based, where typos, photos, and layouts are easy to fix, but even I can see that Ney put tremendous time and effort into Fifty Classics.

Ney notes in the forward that he has flown more than 150 different adventures to date, so I assume he’s got material enough for at least one more edition. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with. If you are a pilot in need of ideas and inspiration, or know someone who is, I recommend this book.

The Real Problem with LAX

LAX terminal

Los Angeles International has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of airports. It gets no respect — and with good reason. Dated, overcrowded, and inefficient, LAX’s primary redeeming characteristic is the mild Southern California weather. When J.D. Power & Associates rated LAX as the third-worst airport in the U.S. in 2010, many Angelinos probably assumed there was a mistake. “Two airports lower are on the list?”

I’ve experienced LAX as a professional charter pilot and an ordinary passenger for more than a third of a century. And so I’ve squirreled away more than one LAX horror story. It’s not uncommon to fly my aircraft from Van Nuys (home to a huge general aviation airport) to LAX in five minutes—and then spend the next hour (or more) crawling those last few feet from the runway to the terminal in a long line of jets. Believe me, regardless of which side of the cockpit door you’re on, LAX is no fun.

The fact is most major airports — think La Guardia, Hartsfield, JFK, McCarran — seem like a cross between a run down bus station and an urban refugee camp, with masses of downtrodden travelers being herded to and from by security apparatchiks and airline employees who’ve “had it up to here”. So why is it so bad? LAX, and other major U.S. airports, look and feel so bad because they suffer from the same affliction: a national lack of runway capacity.

To grasp what’s truly behind the gridlock and delays that mark any authentic LAX experience, one must understand that airports are to airplanes as roads are to cars. Merely expanding the existing roads isn’t enough to make real change. That’s why all the usual fixes we see proposed for LAX—like adding a terminal or gates, or extending runways—won’t fix the airport any more than widening the 405 freeway through the Sepulveda Pass will alleviate West L.A. traffic jams.

Since we face a larger, more serious, and profoundly national infrastructure problem—a shortage of runways and airports—soliciting opinions on a solution for LAX is like asking how to fix a problematic train station when the entire system of tracks and switches is malformed.

Our airport is but one piece of an aviation infrastructure that has been allowed to shrink and decay most in the very areas where more capacity is needed. In other words, LAX is so overcrowded and sclerotic because no new airport capacity—here or elsewhere—is being developed. You wouldn’t expect to repair a clogged drain by allowing more water to back up in the sink, but for some reason we use that logic when it comes to airports.

The famous Theme Building harkens back to a simpler time at LAX. But fixing what ails our airport infrastructure will take a lot more than pretty new terminals with soaring roof lines.

The famous Theme Building harkens back to a simpler time at LAX. But fixing what ails our airport infrastructure will take a lot more than pretty new terminals with soaring roof lines.

Reliever airfields — airports that provide additional capacity to an area when the primary commercial airport is overburdened — have been shuttered throughout the L.A. area over a period of decades and now we’re seeing the result. Did you know that Inglewood, Huntington Park, Gardena, Culver City, and many other Los Angeles towns once hosted their own airports? Almost all of them are now gone, and those which remain have allowed residential and commercial development to encroach on the field to the point where any further expansion is impossible. Take a look at Santa Monica, Hawthorne, Compton, Whiteman, or virtually any other small airport in the Los Angeles area.

Long ago, when our population was a tiny fraction of what it is today, Los Angeles had a couple dozen active airports. But as the number of residents has risen, the airport count has fallen. It’s the exact opposite of what should be happening. Today, one of LAX’s primary relievers for general aviation traffic, Santa Monica Airport, is under threat of closure. If that happens, where do you suppose those airplanes will land?

Los Angeles is not alone. I live in Orange County, and our history includes fourteen distinct airports; today only three remain: two civilian and one military. In 2002, voters had the opportunity to turn the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station into a commercial airport but declined to do so, allowing another much-needed series of runways to fall by the wayside. The same story is repeated across the country. While that’s democracy at work, nobody should be surprised that we’re experiencing gridlock as a result of these decisions.

Self-proclaimed experts will tell you that the problem with our infrastructure is thousands of feet above our heads, claiming the skies over America are so crowded that the current ground-based air traffic control system is to blame for our flying woes. That’s why the Federal government is spending billions of dollars to transition to a satellite-based system referred to as NextGen. But I’ve been flying for decades and it’s extremely rare to see another airplane at altitude. It’s only the condensation trail emanating from the engines that visually reveals them at all.

A third grader could tell you that the sky is large and it’s our airports that are small. That’s where the real crush of traffic happens. We don’t lack airspace — we lack pavement.

ADS-B: Now or Later?

Dynon glass panel with ADS-B weather displayed

I’ve been seeing more and more opinions from aviation writers about how aircraft owners should be equipping their ships for ADS-B sooner rather than later. The reasoning goes like this: the market for ADS-B compliant products is mature and competitive, so prices aren’t likely to decline much further. And if you wait until closer to 2020, you’ll be caught in a mad rush of owners trying to comply with the mandate and find it virtually impossible to get an appointment with the avionics shop.

Call me skeptical. Oh, not about the slow process at the shop — that part I can very much believe. But we’re talking about a piece of computer technology here. Five years is an eternity for electronics in general, and computer components in particular. Look how far glass panel avionics have come in the last half-decade. You get twice the product at one-third the price today.

Compare the $50,000 price of the ubiquitous G1000 with the new Garmin G3X Touch, for example. These products get cheaper while they add ever more features. It’s not one or the other — you get both at the same time. If I had told you in 2009 that a G3X Touchscreen system with synthetic vision, video input, a built-in WAAS GPS receiver, ADAHRS, magnetometer, OAT probe, and engine sensor interface would be available in just a few years for $6,000, you’d probably have said I was crazy. Most of today’s ADS-B-compliant offerings cost more than that all by themselves. But here we are, and I can’t help but wonder what will be available in five more years. I’m betting it’s going to be more powerful and reliable while costing less than existing boxes.

Another reason to delay: the Rule That Will Not Change may very well (wait for it) change. The FAA has been taking a hard line on that, claiming it will not under any circumstances consider a delay in the mandate’s effective date. But even the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General has been witheringly critical. And let’s face it, the FAA is not known for completing their projects on time. “But this time will be different!”, the Administrator proclaims. We’ll see.

The Feds are also under pressure from EAA, AOPA, and others who are making a pretty air-tight case about the damage this will do to the GA rank-and-file.

[AOPA’s] letter noted that the minimum investment of $5,000 to $6,000 to install ADS-B Out equipment is “far too high” for many GA operators, especially given that the general aviation fleet includes at least 81,564 certified, piston-powered, fixed-wing aircraft that are valued at $40,000 or less and GA owners have no way to recoup their costs. The actual number of GA aircraft valued at or below $40,000 could be much higher if experimental aircraft are also taken into account. Pushing ahead with the mandate as written will ground thousands of general aviation aircraft at a time when the industry is just beginning to recover from the recession.

It’s also worth noting that today’s ADS-B solutions are not always an appropriate fit for today’s aircraft. A good example of that would be a Pitts biplane. Where are you supposed to put all that equipment? If you’re choking down the bill for ADS-B Out, wouldn’t you want the “free” traffic and weather data that come with the expenditure? Take a look at this Pitts instrument panel and think about where you’d put a display — portable or otherwise. And keep in mind, there’s nothing extraneous there. Just about everything you see there is required by Part 91 for day VFR flying.

A typical Pitts instrument panel.  Not exactly tailor-made for the ADS-B era, is it?

A typical Pitts instrument panel. Not exactly tailor-made for the ADS-B era, is it?

Many airplanes are going to have this problem. It’s not limited to piston powered airplanes, either. I know several Gulfstream IV operators who aren’t exactly falling all over themselves to spend $1 million equipping their $3 million airplane (yes, that’s what some older G-IVs are worth these days) for ADS-B. They have other mandates on the horizon as well, including ADS-Contract and CPDLC, and must comply with the minimum equipment requirements for all the places they fly. To call it complicated would be an understatement. In fact, this is just as big a problem for the legacy jet fleet as it is for the light GA piston fleet. I’ve said it before and I’ll said it again: aviation’s fortunes are inexorably linked, whether you’re operating a bizjet, trainer, airliner, or ultralight. What affects one of us affects all of us.

Here’s something else to think about: even if the deadline slips a bit, the technical ADS-B requirements are not likely to change, so building a product that complies with the minimum ADS-B “Out” specifications should not only get cheaper as time goes on, but also come to market at a faster rate than we’ve seen with other avionics. Just a few days ago, for example, Garmin announced a (relatively) low-cost ADS-B solution that doesn’t required a multi-function display at all.

Most avionics upgrades are optional. This one is mandatory, so there’s a captive market out there and it’s logical to assume every OEM wants a piece of it. Technological progress aside, competition tends to drive prices down, not up. Is it crazy to think ADS-B solutions will be selling for half the GDL-84’s announced $4,000 price by the time 2020 rolls around?

Even if the price doesn’t go down a penny, inflation alone will shave off another ten percent of the effective cost between now and then, and give aircraft owners more time to save up. Flying is certainly not getting any cheaper, but if there’s one area where your money goes further than ever, it’s avionics — especially if you’re blessed with an “Experimental” placard.

I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t schedule a date with your avionics shop for compliance, but if it was me, I’d be waiting until a lot closer to the deadline before pulling the trigger on equipment choices. Nobody can predict the future, but when it comes to avionics, you can feel pretty confident that the choices in 2020 are going to be less expensive and more capable than anything available today.

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?

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…