We Don’t Train For That

Gulfstream G550 simulator

The tragic Gulfstream IV accident in Boston has been on my mind lately, partly because I fly that aircraft, but also because the facts of the case are disquieting.

While I’m not interested in speculating about the cause, I don’t mind discussing factual information that the NTSB has already released to the public. And one of the initial details they provided was that the airplane reached takeoff speed but the pilot flying was not able to raise the nose (or “rotate”, in jet parlance).

My first thought after hearing this? “We don’t train for that.” Every scenario covered during initial and recurrent training — whether in the simulator or the classroom — is based on one of two sequences: a malfunction prior to V1, in which case we stop, or a malfunction after V1, in which case we continue the takeoff and deal with the problem in the air. As far as I know, every multi-engine jet is operated the same way.

But nowhere is there any discussion or training on what to do if you reach the takeoff decision speed (V1), elect to continue, reach Vr, and are then unable to make the airplane fly. You’re forced into doing something that years of training has taught you to never do: blow past V1, Vr, V2, and then attempt an abort.

In this case, the airplane reached 165 knots — about 45 knots beyond the takeoff/abort decision speed. To call that uncharted territory would be generous. Meanwhile, thirty tons of metal and fuel is hurtling down the runway at nearly a football field per second.

We just don’t train for it. But maybe we should. Perhaps instead of focusing on simple engine failures we ought to look at the things that are causing accidents and add them to a database of training scenarios which can be enacted in the simulator without prior notice. Of course, this would have to be a no-jeopardy situation for the pilots. This wouldn’t be a test, it would be a learning experience based on real-world situations encountered by pilots flying actual airplanes. In some cases there’s no good solution, but even then I believe there are valuable things to be learned.

In the case of the Gulfstream IV, there have been four fatal accidents since the aircraft went into service more than a quarter of a century ago. As many news publications have noted, that’s not a bad record. But all four have something in common: each occurred on the ground.

  • October 30, 1996: a Gulfstream IV crashed during takeoff after the pilots lose control during a gusting crosswind.
  • February 12, 2012: a Gulfstream IV overran the 2,000 meter long runway at Bukavu-Kamenbe
  • July 13, 2012: a G-IV on a repositioning flight in southern France departs the runway during landing and broke apart after hitting a stand of trees.
  • May 31, 2014: the Gulfstream accident in Boston

In the few years that I’ve been flying this outstanding aircraft, I’ve seen a variety of odd things happen, from preflight brake system anomalies to flaps that wouldn’t deploy when the airplane was cold-soaked to a “main entry door” annunciation at 45,000 feet (believe me, that gets your attention!).

This isn’t to say the G-IV is an unsafe airplane. Far from it. But like most aircraft, it’s a highly complex piece of machinery with tens of thousands of individual parts. All sorts of tribal knowledge comes from instructors and line pilots during recurrent training. With each anomaly related to us in class, I always end up thinking to myself “we should run that scenario in the simulator”.

Cases like United 232, Apollo 13, Air France 447, and US Air 1549 prove time and time again that not every failure is covered by training or checklists. Corporate/charter aviation is already pretty safe… but perhaps we can do even better.

This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

The Key to Good IFR: More VFR


The Asiana 214 investigation has proven to be every bit as interesting and disturbing as I’d predicted.

Most of the reporting and commentary has been focused on the pilot’s interaction with — and understanding of — the aircraft’s automation system. It seems clear they were having trouble getting the aircraft to do what they wanted during the approach into San Francisco.

You won’t hear pilots bragging about this at cocktail parties, but “what’s it doing now?” is uttered far too often on the flight deck. I myself have been puzzled about why the airplane didn’t do what I thought I asked it to do. Usually it’s a programming issue, but not always.

The most recent issue of NASA’s Callback publication, issue 407, details the story of four professional flight crews who had automation confusion issues similar to that experienced by the Asiana crew. So this isn’t exactly uncommon.

Either way, pressing the wrong button is not a criminal offense.

“Cleared for the Visual.” Gulp!

What is criminal is putting a captain on the flight deck of a passenger airliner when he’s unable to comfortably hand-fly it, because when the electrons aren’t flowing the way you want ‘em to, flying the airplane by hand is often the best course of action… not to mention the most fun, too.

Well, most of the time anyway.

The Asiana Airlines training captain who crashed a Boeing 777 at San Francisco International Airport in July was anxious about the visual approach, which he described as “very stressful,” according to investigators.

Capt. Lee Kang Kuk, an eight-year employee of Asiana on his first extended trip flying the 777, also told investigators he was confused about the operation of the airplane’s automation controls, according to a report released by the National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday as the board held a hearing into the crash.

The 777’s speed dropped dangerously low on the approach, made with assistance of the PAPI lights but without vertical guidance from the ILS glideslope, which was out of service at the time. Both Asiana 214 pilots said they were unsure about the automation mode with respect to the autothrottles, which should have been engaged on the approach. Instead, the autothrottles were set to idle, according to investigators.

The training captain stated it was “very difficult to perform a visual approach with a heavy airplane,” according to the safety board summary of an interview with the pilot. Asked whether he was concerned about his ability to perform the visual approach, he said, “very concerned, yeah.”

An automation interaction problem — the so-called “FLCH trap” — I can understand. But inability to comfortably fly a visual approach? On the surface, that’s a major head-scratcher. When you dig a little deeper, however, it makes perfect sense.

The Key to Good IFR: More VFR

I don’t know how Asiana does it, but many foreign airlines hire their pilots “ab initio”, meaning they are trained by the airline as airline pilots from day one. They have no exposure to pleasure flying, aerobatics, or gliders because the concept of “general aviation” does not exist in most countries. Ab initio airline pilots receive only the minimum required VFR experience. As soon as they venture into instrument flying, the VFR world is left behind forever. They have no use for it! Or so they think.

I’d imagine many of them never fly under visual flight rules again for the rest of their lives. It’s sad. And it’s no wonder some of them are uncomfortable with the thought of flying a visual approach!

It’s not as if the weather was poor, the runway short, or the airfield surrounded by high terrain. There were no issues with density altitude, runway slope or width, or anything else. San Francisco International’s runway 28R is nearly 12,000 feet long. I’ve landed on it many times myself. The weather was clear, winds calm, and the airport is unmistakably large.

Sure, the controllers do tend to keep arriving aircraft quite high. But even from 10,000 feet on a tight downwind, it’s not rocket science to start slowing the airplane and adding drag. Unless you’re asleep at the wheel, you know what’s coming. And even if you don’t, you can ask. The controllers speak English, too. A visual approach in those conditions shouldn’t scare the pilot-in-command of any aircraft. In fact, if there’s an easier way to land an airplane, I’m not sure what it is.

Kids Can Do It — Why Can’t We?

To put this in perspective, consider a glider. It has no engine, and therefore cannot abort a landing attempt. Once you begin an approach to the runway, you are going to land, period. These aircraft have no instruments, no electronic guidance, and they fly in and out of airports without any visual landing aids whatsoever. The landing areas tend to be short, narrow, and rough. And here in the U.S., students as young as fourteen years old can fly them solo. Fourteen! They’re just kids, and apparently even with virtually no flight time, they have no trouble getting comfortable with something that a highly experienced major airline captain felt very uneasy attempting.

This begs the question of how Captain Kuk became so uncomfortable with a simple visual approach. I’d estimate that 75% of all approaches are visuals. I’d be shocked if Kuk hadn’t flown literally hundreds of them. As a scheduled airline pilot, he was required to undergo recurrent training every six months, and had been doing that for eight years.

So how did this level of discomfort with basic visual flying escape the schoolhouse? If Kuk’s training is anything like what we undergo in the Gulfstream, he may rarely have ever flown that kind of visual procedure in the simulator. Mostly what gets simulated are low-visibility conditions. The assumption that it’d almost be “cheating” to have visual references outside the aircraft might not have been correct. Visual approaches in the sim are typically combined with other anomalies: no-flap scenarios, windshear simulations, landing gear blow-downs, etc. But not the typical slam-dunk from a harried controller.

One wonders how many other airline pilots pale at the thought of flying a visual approach (or as the VFR pilots among us call it: landing). I know most airlines no longer allow circle-to-land procedures, but even the neophyte instrument pilot has to perform them to acceptable standards before being issued an instrument rating, and that’s infinitely more demanding than a visual approach. Instead of practicing an ILS PRM at San Francisco, perhaps we should be vectored in on one of those famously high downwinds and cleared for a visual approach from two miles up. Maybe we should train a little more like we fly.

And while we’re at it, taking a hint from that fourteen year old kid who just soloed a beat up Schweizer glider might not be so bad, either. Get out of the glass palace and into an actual airplane where there’s nothing to do except fly by looking out the window.

Mandated Spin Training

Mike Goulian - Extra 330SC

Unless you’re an instructor, practical spin training is not required by the FAA for any pilot. I’ve always been amazed by that. Even if you plan on performing spins intentionally, no training of any kind would be legally needed. Does that make sense to you?

But it gets worse. Flying a massive airliner with hundreds of people on board? No spin training required; these days, the computers will take care of everything. Stall shakers, stick pushers, and AOA probes are infallible!

Even if you are an instructor, your spin training could have been as simple as a single flight, perhaps a spin entry, a half turn of rotation, and a recovery. Call me crazy, but that seems… inadequate. My flight training experience was rather old school, consisting of tailwheels, spins, and aerobatics in stone-simple aircraft which bear little resemblance to today’s glass-infested airplanes. With all due respect to those who think I sound eerily like an 80-year old complaining about how “things ain’t how they used to be”, let me say that even a broken clock is right twice a day, so stick with me for a moment and see if you don’t agree.

There was a time when practical spin training was required for even the most basic pilot certification. Unfortunately those were the early, wild west days of flying, and I can only imagine spins weren’t approached by barnstormers with the level of forethought and consideration we typically give to those things today. As I’ve previously noted, they had a appreciable tolerance for risk back then. By the late 1940’s, conventional wisdom was that the training itself was leading to more accidents than inadvertent spins occurring in the wild.

Mandated spin training was discontinued by the Feds in 1949.

So how has this policy been working out for us? Not well, in my opinion. I’m often asked where my zeal for spin training comes from. The answer is simple: decades of accident reports. A search of the NTSB database for the word “spin” reveals 4,019 accidents — most of them fatal. That’s approximately 4,019 too many. It’s also worth noting that the database only goes back to 1962, so we can’t compare the statistics to what came before. According to the Air Safety Foundation:

Stall and spin-related accidents are among the most deadly types of GA accidents, with a fatality rate of about 28 percent, and accounting for about 10 percent of all GA accidents.

To be fair, some of the 4,019 NTSB reports referencing spins were helicopter accidents and others did not involved an aerodynamic spin. For example, a recent RV-6A accident report involved a loss of directional control on landing, leading the aircraft to “spin” off the runway. Even so, I still count nearly 20 spin-related crashes in the past twelve months. That doesn’t sound too bad when compared to the 50 year average, but keep in mind GA flying activity is down sharply (22 million fixed-wing GA hours in 2000 vs only 12 million a decade later).

Empirical evidence suggests that spin training might help avoid some of these tragedies. Unfortunately the average GA pilot doesn’t necessarily look at spins very favorably. More than any other maneuver, spins come with a long litany of baggage. Horror stories from other pilots, tall tales of spins that swallow the aircraft whole like Moby Dick, apprehensiveness about motion sickness, and so on. This requires delicate handling by those who do provide such training. Unfortunately, some still approach this using blunt force. “Just do it”. That works about as well as exposing a GA neophyte to advanced aerobatics. They run away and never return, while the bad experience only grows with each retelling over the years.

Teaching spins is not rocket science, but it must be done methodically. It’s very tempting to skip items that a more experienced pilot “ought to know”, but 99% of pilots spend 99% of their time flying straight-and-level. As a result, I’ve seen some really weird explanations from spin students about basic aerodynamics. One of the most common errors is a belief that aircraft stall at a specific speed rather than a specific angle of attack. If you’re always wings-level at 1-G, that might seem like gospel after decades of uneventful flying. If only the laws of physics would abide such misconceptions!

That’s why my spin training always begins with a thorough review of basic aerodynamics: how lift is developed, stalls, coordination, wing drops, and finally the mechanics of the spin itself. When teaching spins, the best advice for a CFI is: assume nothing.

In the air, it’s vital that the spins are worked up to slowly, beginning with stalls of various types. Remember this is not only a new activity for most trainees, but the aircraft is unfamiliar and the instructor is an unknown quantity as well. Earning the student’s trust early on allows them to focus on the spins later rather than questioning whether they’ll survive the experience. I’ve found falling leaf stalls are particularly valuable because the student must be comfortable with high angles of attack. If they gain nothing permanent from the training beyond this, it is a success, because we all must fly at high angles of attack during landing.

A quality spin training syllabus will include many things that even those who’ve got spin experience might not be familiar with: demonstrations of the difference between spins and spiral dives, drills to build confidence, techniques for assisting apprehensive students, advanced spin modes for those who take to it with greater ease, and so on.

One of the most common misconceptions about spin training is that its primary purpose is to help you recover from a spin. The truth is you aren’t terribly likely to encountering one inadvertently. If proper coordination is maintained (and it’s often not — that is why we have these stall-spin accidents), few pilots will encounter one in the heat of battle. No, the best reason for teaching spins is to eliminate fear of the unknown. Such fears can be debilitating at a moment when the pilot can least afford to be indecisive. The same can be said of upset recovery courses.

I’ll take it a step further and state that many landing accidents are caused by a lack of spin training. What does one have to do with the other? Students who are afraid of spins will be afraid of deep stalls. It’s only natural to fear the unknown. Those wing drops can be scary if you don’t understand what’s causing them, what will happen if you don’t correct properly, and how the resulting spin entry should be handled. A fear of stalls means they’ll be apprehensive about high angles of attack and low airspeeds. So they approach the runway with too much energy just to be on the safe side, with predictable results.

With all that in mind, it astounds me that the FAA proclaims spin training as unnecessary. I see people every day who have had no spin training and their flying is often marked by poor rudder skills, limited understanding of the related aerodynamics, and a lack of appreciation for the importance of coordination.

That’s the benefit of spins, and the reason I feel strongly it should be mandated as a central part of primary training. The stick-and-rudder skill deficiencies in today’s pilots didn’t start today. It began years ago when they were learning how to fly. Fixing it will require a journey into the past. It’s time to get back to basics, and you won’t cover all the bases unless spin training is a central part of the mix.

The Missing Link in Flight Simulation


Several months ago I mused about the how ever-advancing computer technology has led to a marked improvement in simulators for the light GA market. After my post was published, reader Keith Smith alerted me to a corresponding service he had developed called PilotEdge. His company’s mission is to add a level of realism to the general aviation FTD that not even the multi-million dollar Level D boxes have thus far been able to offer.

I was intrigued. What could possible transform an inexpensive Flight Training Device that way? In a word: radios. As Keith said, “People use [simulators] for things they can’t easily do in the airplane because they lack real ATC and real traffic. If you had those elements, an ordinary end-to-end flight would now be beneficial in the sim, because it would more accurately model the workload associated with conducting the flight.”

That’s when it hit me: I’ve been training regularly in a full-motion Level D Gulfstream IV-SP simulator for a few years now, and despite the accuracy with which the cockpit, visuals, and motion are replicated, it’s never been exactly like flying the actual jet. I never spent much time thinking about why. Adding live air traffic control and filling the skies with actual traffic, operated by humans who spoke on the radio would completely revolutionize the experience, because for better or worse, pilots invest tremendous energy and attention on those two elements. We have to listen for our call sign, respond to queries, and interact with other people on a continual basis.

This isn’t about radio skills (although the service would definitely be useful for that purpose), it’s about workload. Keith related the story of a sim pilot who was so busy in the traffic pattern dealing with a Skyhawk ahead of him and a King Air on a three-mile straight-in for another runway that he failed to notice that he only had two green “gear down” lights.

The shower of sparks was impressive — but nothing compared to the look of horror on his face. He was sure he had confirmed the landing gear position. In fact, he heard the gear coming down and felt the vibration, but a badly timed call from the controller asking him to widen out on downwind distracted him and he never finished the checks. His radio work was perfect, but he failed to prioritize the necessary tasks. You couldn’t duplicate that without PilotEdge.

Bringing the workload closer to real world levels reveals chinks in the student’s armor; in fact, it’s exactly what instructors do with their students in real life: give them a heavy workload to see how they deal with the stress.

A PilotEdge virtual controller working the tower cab at Long Beach Airport (LGB).  They don't just hear pilots on the radio -- they see 'em out the window, too!

A PilotEdge virtual controller working the tower cab at Long Beach Airport (LGB). They don’t just hear pilots on the radio — they see ‘em out the window, too!

Imagine running an emergency in the simulator — say, an engine failure or depressurization scenario — and how much better it would be with a controller on the other end of the radio. You declare an emergency, and they start asking you about fuel remaining, souls on board, what are your intentions, do you need assistance, etc. That’s realism. It’s also a great opportunity to learn things a simulator normally never teaches you, like the fact that ignoring ATC is sometimes the best and safest option when you need to fully focus on flying the airplane. Imagine a copilot trying to read a challenge-response checklist to you in one ear while ATC is yammering away in the other.

Instructors using the PilotEdge service have a textual “back channel” to the controllers and can request scenarios like lost comm, a late go-around, poor vectoring, holds, and literally anything else a real controller would throw at you.

How It Works

The goal is 100% fidelity. ATC services are as realistic as PilotEdge can make them. They used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain SOPs for Southern California towers, approach control, and Center sectors. They also familiarize themselves with local airport customs by listening to LiveATC.net. The sim controllers are paid by PilotEdge and use the same phraseology and procedures utilized by FAA-certified ATC specialists.

But “live” ATC is not very realistic if you’re the only one in the sky. So PilotEdge uses what they call “traffic shaping”. Rather than merely hoping for traffic, they coordinate actual pilots with simulators in remote locations to be at the right place at the right time flying a specified route to create that traffic. And they’re on the frequency as well. Listening for your call sign is something you have to do as much or more in the simulator than you’d be doing in real life. You’ll wait for departure, get stepped on during transmissions, and do all the other things that would happen in a real airplane.

PilotEdge’s service area covers Southern California. Some of their traffic is live, while the rest is computer-generated. PilotEdge has 400 drones flying around the area at all times in Echo and Golf airspace, squawking 1200 and not talking to anyone. They’re programmed to fly exactly as real-world “non-participating” targets do. They’re in the VFR practice areas, the Palos Verdes aerobatic area, and so on. They have military aircraft flying at high speed on military training routes, light GA aircraft on multi-hour cross-countries, gliders (again, without a transponder) flying ridge lift off of Warner Springs and around Mojave, etc.

Here’s a three minute overview of the PilotEdge service:

The Genesis

I’d never heard of a service like PilotEdge before, but Keith said they are not the only one providing ATC services for simulators. The difference is, the “other guys” are using voice-recognition software limited to prepackaged scenarios rather than a room full of human controllers who can deal with — and dish out — anything you can dream up.

Keith Smith started with an early internet-based attempt at simulating air traffic control called VATSIM, which began by using text and later went to Voice-Over-IP.

“That’s where the idea came about; I was a controller there for seven years or so. It’s got lots of flaws for commercial use, but it was the genesis. I couldn’t convince other pilots to use VATSIM due to technical difficulty, so I built PilotEdge from the ground up, licensed the radar scope technology, and off we went.

The radio source code is fairly complicated, but beyond that the service is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Technology is not the key. The secret is our operating model: ATC services provided fifteen hours a day, no requirement for scheduling in advance, and it’s just like the real ATC system.

Also, VATSIM strictly prohibits commercial use, whereas we are built for that purpose. Once a fee is charged, a volunteer service like VATSIM gets complicated. Who gets paid and who does not?”

I asked him how the reception has been for PilotEdge. “It’s a tricky question to answer. It depends on the market. Right now we’re sitting at around 400 users and we’ve been there for 3-4 months. We bring some flight schools on, others drop out. The middle of the market has not been strong, but relationships on the upper-end have made up for it. But we’re a small company, only two years old and definitely still a start-up as far as funding goes.”

On the light GA side, PilotEdge is about building radio skills and proficiency at a low cost. With the price of flying spiraling upward at an alarming rate, it’s getting too expensive to operate a real airplane just to build mastery of radio communication.

Even so, it’s been hard for PilotEdge to get much traction with the prototypical flight school. These FBOs tend to be run by people who are overworked. Changes to their programs — especially if it’s an FAA-approved Part 141 syllabus — are difficult to make, and the main emphasis for these companies is keeping the leaseback airplanes flying. Likewise, instructors need to build time, so they want to fly, not sit in a simulator.

Keith feels he’ll be most successful with home users and corporate training centers, because all they do is simulation. The center of market is going to be soft because simulation is not as mature there (although that’s starting to change due to the Redbird Effect).

Expansion on the Horizon

Chicago Jet Group recently obtained an STC to put CPDLC (Controller-Pilot Data Link Communication — basically ATC via text) into Falcons and Gulfstreams, and they contacted PilotEdge to help provide training. VATSIM started with text-only, so it’s an easy transition. Keith said anyone who worked with VATSIM would feel right at home.

I wondered if PilotEdge would ever expand their service area beyond SoCal, and he responded by saying that airspace is airspace, but if the need arose, sure. They picked ZLA because there are simple, moderate, and highly complex areas around SoCal. Keeping the service area restricted increases density of traffic and that congestion helps training and realism. Having said that, there is a company looking to provide PilotEdge service for the New York area because they have a commercial contract to fulfill for that region.

The brass ring for a company like PilotEdge is, of course, the major training centers like Simuflite, FSI, and Simcom. Even NASA has shown an interest.

Exterior of a Gulfstream IV-SP simulator at the CAE Simuflite facility in Dallas, TX

Exterior of a Gulfstream IV-SP simulator at the CAE Simuflite facility in Dallas, TX

They’re already making some inroads there via a partnership with ProFlight LLC, a Part 142 training facility in Carlsbad, CA. Founder Caleb Taylor has deployed PilotEdge in their simulators and is basing their business model on that service. Their goal is not just recurrent training, but continual training where pilots can come in any time at no cost and use the device, solo. Well, if it’s used solo, there’s no instructor pretending to deliver ATC (badly, in most cases). So, enter PilotEdge.

Additionally, during ground training, where simulators are not generally used until after classroom training is complete, they want to use their $6 million sim as a training aid. Students will jump in the cockpit and practice using all the systems, including the FMS. There, too, ATC has a role. Lastly, students enter the flight training portion of the formal initial or recurrent program and log their sessions with an instructor. But they will be encouraged to follow up with a bunch of solo sessions, again, with PilotEdge.

All Roads Lead to Savannah

Keith knew that I fly Gulfstreams for a living and mentioned that they’re working with the folks in Savannah as well. Of course, that piqued my curiosity pretty quickly. He said that Gulfstream is using PilotEdge to save on certification costs related to the avionics in the G650. They’re developing the first FMS update for that airplane, and traditionally the human factors certification takes place in the actual jet. That’s expensive. Operating a G650 costs thousands of dollars per hour. PilotEdge allowed them to move that work into a simulator with full FAA blessing.

“We’re a small company nobody’s heard of, but the Gulfstream project got us in the door at FlightSafety. But even then, they were under the impression that it was voice recognition software, a synthetic product using rigid scenarios.”

It’s Not Just for Pilots

PilotEdge can work in reverse, too. Sacramento City College trains controllers before they go to Oklahoma City for formal coursework with the FAA. They setup a lab with simulators and use PilotEdge to get trainees a leg up on the intricacies of keeping a flurry of flying aluminum sequenced and separated.

Keith said they just put together a proposal for the Mexican Navy as well. Again, competitors use voice recognition software, but that technology doesn’t scale easily when the language in question is Spanish rather than English. He said PilotEdge’s pricing is also superior.

Speaking of English, no matter where you go — and I’ve been on virtually every continent — controllers and pilots are supposed to be capable of communicating in English. There’s no other way to ensure a pilot whose native language is Portuguese can talk to a controller in China who’s primary tongue is Mandarin. So a huge aspect of the international training market is dictated by the ICAO Level 6 English requirements. That regulation has teeth to it, and everyone’s struggling to get their people up to speed. Guess who can help with that?

The Bottom Line

I’m frankly a little surprised that nobody’s come up with a service like PilotEdge before Keith Smith and his team made it happen. As previously noted, the requisite technology has been with us for many years. In some ways PilotEdge is almost anachronistic. From manufacturing to fast food, industries are moving toward greater automation and a lower employee count. PilotEdge is doing the exact opposite, supplanting automated ATC simulation with live humans. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’ve had the misfortune to interact with a couple of these computerized programs in the past and always come away wishing I could get the last two hours of my life back.

The combination of a new generation of simulators and PilotEdge’s addition of air traffic and ATC has the potential to vastly improve the way pilots train while simultaneously reducing the cost of obtaining everything from a sport pilot certificate to a turbojet type rating. I can see this powerful duo creating an aviation equivalent of the smartphone explosion and helping turn the tide toward a more prosperous future.

Perhaps evolutionary is revolutionary after all.

This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog at http://blog.aopa.org/opinionleaders/2013/10/31/simulation/.

Looking Back: How I Got Started in Aviation

A 1930's-era aviation-themed photo shoot at John Wayne Airport with my Pitts S-2B biplane

The way flying consumes my life these days, you’d think I was born with a pair of goggles, leather jacket, and a long silk scarf. Alas, nothing could be further from the truth.

I grew up in Studio City, ironically not far from the Van Nuys Airport that I fly out of on a regular basis these days. But aside from a few childhood toys, aviation wasn’t on my radar much as a youngin’.

The one exception would be a memorable flight from Los Angeles to Missouri in 1977. My mother took me to visit the grandparents, and the trip to St. Louis was made via a shiny red and white TWA Boeing 727. It was the old days of air travel, before so-called “de-regulation”. I don’t know what the ticket cost. What I do know is that everyone dressed up, including yours truly in a little two-piece denim suit. The flight attendants provided a pair of pilots wings for my disco-worthy attire, and I was invited to visit the flight deck — in mid-flight, I might add. Imagine the response you’d get by asking to do that today!

After landing there was a miniature photo shoot in the cockpit with the flight engineer. Everyone was all smiles. I remember enough of the adventure to realize it was nothing like flying on a Part 121 air carrier today, even in first class.

Trying out the pilot's seat after my first flight in an airplane, a TWA 727.  This was in St. Louis, circa 1977.

Trying out the pilot’s seat after my first flight in an airplane, a TWA 727. This was in St. Louis, circa 1977.

As I said though, apart from that trip, flying just didn’t figure into my life very much. It might have in later years, but my mother lost a quick battle to pneumonia on my 7th birthday and my father followed a couple of years later after a heart attack in October of ’82.

I miss them.

My parents having dinner at the Playboy Club in L.A., circa 1970.

My parents having dinner at the Playboy Club in L.A., circa 1970.

As you might imagine, those two events changed everything. By Thanksgiving that year, the perpetual summer of southern California had been exchanged for the little town of Eagle River in Alaska. I was living with my cousin David and his family. They had just moved there themselves, actually — he was hired by the FAA as a replacement Air Traffic Control Specialist after Reagan fired virtually the whole cadre in the PATCO strike.

It’s one of those strange twists of fate that brought me closer to aviation even as I was focused on more mundane things. The sixth grade, for example. Learning what “winter” meant. Making new friends. Rebuilding my life on what, to a 10 year old, seemed like another planet.

David was an instrument-rated GA pilot, but as I recall he didn’t fly much. After completing his initial training in Oklahoma City, he’d been assigned to the Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). Being the low man on the totem pole, he often worked the graveyard shift.

Things at Anchorage Center were rather lively in those days, as the strike mess had left the Center extremely short staffed. And I was a curious kid, so one day David took me to see the place and before I knew it, they put me to work as a “runner” in the Flight Data section. Flight Data was an area where computers and industrial-sized dot-matrix printers would churn out the paper flight progress strips that controllers used to track each aircraft. I learned how to detach the strips, put them in the plastic holder, and then take them to the appropriate controller.

These strips are used to track an IFR flight's information as it works its way through the system.

These strips are used to track an IFR flight’s information as it works its way through the system.

When I think back on those days, I’m amazed. The early 80’s were the height of the Cold War, and Anchorage Center was (is?) located on Elmendorf Air Force Base, very much a front-line facility within easy strike range of the Soviet Union. But there I was, a ten-year-old kid wandering around a major air traffic control center with no supervision. Today, I’d probably get arrested or shot for the simple act of loitering in the employee parking lot.

But back then? Nah. I never thought anything of it. It seemed completely natural. The controllers showed me how to read the flight progress strips, explained the data block on the radar screen, and even showed me how the entire airspace was organized. They’d let me sit in and listen as they worked, and would even have me watch an empty sector (remember, they were understaffed!) so I could call someone over to work the traffic if any appeared on the screen.

This is what Anchorage Center looks like today.  Back when I was there, it was far more antiquated.

This is what Anchorage Center looks like today. Back when I was there, it was far more antiquated.

It was during those years that I got my first exposure to Saturday Night Live, MTV and Friday Night Videos by watching them in the break room. It was also when the Soviets shot down a fully loaded Korean Airlines 747 after it wandered into their airspace. Like I said — the Cold War. As I recall Anchorage had just handed the flight off to Tokyo Center.

Anyway, as a newbie, David was still undergoing training as he worked toward FPL (“Full Performance Level”) status. It took several years of on-the-job training to reach that point. You’d start on the data side, and then learn to work the radar end of things. His training required periodic tests, and as Gene Kranz said, failure was not an option. You’d be allowed a single re-test, which would result in one of two outcomes: pass or termination.

Unfortunately, he washed out of the program after a couple of years and we bid the 49th state goodbye shortly thereafter. In it’s place: Las Vegas, Nevada. Talk about freezer burn. Within a few years I’d gone from hot to cold and back to hot again.

By that time, I was focused on middle and high school, finally completing my own personal Bermuda Triangle when I returned to Southern California for college. During these years I wasn’t much involved in aviation, but in retrospect it had to have been somewhere in the back of my head, because shortly after graduating, the flying bug hit me faster than… well, than a bug hitting a flying machine.

It was 1998. I was driving down the street one day on the east side of John Wayne Airport for a reason I cannot recall (except to say it had absolutely nothing to do with aviation), and noticed a series of sky-blue awnings that said ‘Flight Training’.

This is the blue awning that literally stopped me in my tracks on that September day in 1998.

This is the blue awning that literally stopped me in my tracks on that September day in 1998.

Sometime between where the awning started and where it ended, I made the decision that yes, I was going to do that. Not “that looks interesting” or “maybe I’ll check into it”. No, whatever clicked in my brain that day, by the time the car traveled the next hundred feet, it was a foregone conclusion that flying was the new focus.

It was almost as if this was something that had been on my to-do list for a long time and I’d simply forgotten about it. So I slammed on the brakes, left a ridiculously long skid mark on the street, and turned into the parking lot at Sunrise Aviation.

I never looked back.

Demo flight? Nah. Just get me some books and let’s start scheduling the training! I didn’t even look at any other FBOs. The place seemed clean and professional, so I checked that off the list and dove in with both feet. I wasn’t in a particular hurry, but started in late July and finished on Christmas Eve. And those five months included a long period when one of the two runways at SNA was closed for reconstruction. It’s just part of my personality to put laser-like focus on any task I undertake until it’s done. Either I do it or I don’t. There’s no halfway.

Looking back, it’s also clear that this was a rare and perfect time in life: I had a sufficient quantity of both time and money, something I didn’t fully appreciate until I began instructing and saw the struggles many aspiring pilots had in one or both of those arenas.

It was also an era when things were significantly cheaper. This was only fifteen years ago, avgas was about $2.60 a gallon. The Skyhawk cost $66 an hour (including fuel) and instructors were $29 per hour. Today that same airplane at the same FBO is $164 and the CFI is $70.

The bill from my first flight.  Ah, the good old days!  Of course, we'll be saying that about *today's* rates at some point, too...

The bill from my first flight. Ah, the good old days! Of course, we’ll be saying that about *today’s* rates at some point, too…

So now I was a pilot. And I did what many of us do after primary training: looked around and said, “What now?” Well fate had an answer for me. You see, after completing the private, Sunrise provides a “free” hour of aerobatics as a little thank you. Brilliant marketing on their part, as it turned out to be the most expensive hour I’ve ever flown. A few weeks later I had finished a tailwheel endorsement and aerobatic program, and for about six months thereafter I took everyone who would say “yes” up for an aerobatic ride, giving them loops, rolls, spins, Cubans, Immelmans, barrel rolls, and more.

Then came the Skylane, which I bought for instrument and commercial training, later using it for the many Angel Flights I’ve written about. By that time that was done, it was nearly 2004 and I started to notice that the cost of operating the Skylane had easily doubled from what I was paying just a few years earlier. The fuel, insurance, maintenance, and everything else was driving me into a financial hole. But what did I care? I was flying!

Okay, maybe I cared a little.

My C182P Skylane, nicknamed "Tweety".  I flew her for 800 hours and she never let me down.

My C182P Skylane, nicknamed “Tweety”. I flew her for 800 hours and she never let me down.

Truth be told, that was actually the fork in the road. To the left I saw a future of fewer hours in the air due to the cost. To the right was going to have to be something that would make flying affordable. But what?

I pondered this for quite a while. Winning the lottery was the preferred route. I suppose a World Series of Poker victory might have also sufficed. Alas, for reasons I’ll never understand, neither of those came to fruition. Lower down on the list of possibilities were things like selling a kidney… but only because those might have affected my medical certification. You get the idea, though: I was hooked. While I thought about the future, I got a seaplane rating on the Colorado River and my commercial glider rating at the now defunct Sailplane Enterprises in Hemet.

I took my seaplane rating checkride in this highly modified C150 on Lake Havasu

I took my seaplane rating checkride in this highly modified C150 on Lake Havasu

My day job had been working as an independent web developer, and nights were spent singing with a professional opera company. I’d started back in the earliest days of the World Wide Web, when knowing HTML meant you could name your own price and people would line up to pay it. But the business was changing, and the work I’d been doing was keeping me in front of a computer all day at my home office. So in an effort to fly more and get away from the solitary nature of working alone, I sold my beloved airplane and plunked down a pretty penny on ATP’s 14-Day CFI Program.

(I kept a day-by-day journal of that experience if you’re interested in reading about what it’s like obtaining a CFI, CFI-Instrument, and CFI-Multi in two weeks time.)

After that, I went back to Sunrise at a fortuitous time and was hired to teach there. The rest, as they say, is history. You meet a few people, fly a bunch of interesting airplanes, make some friends, and the next thing you know, you’re a 6,500 hour pilot with 100 aircraft types under your belt.

I’ve always felt that variety was the spice of life, and in aviation that philosophy has allowed me to do some very cool things. I just looked at the most recent page in my logbook, and it contains entries for a DiamondStar, Super Decathlon, King Air, Gulfstream IV, TwinStar, RV-6, and Pitts.

Still giving rides!  My wife gets her first flight in the Gulfstream IV.

Still giving rides! My wife gets her first flight in the Gulfstream IV.

In some ways, it seems like a lifetime ago that this journey began. In others, I realize that there’s still so much to learn and experience that I’m (hopefully) closer to the beginning of this adventure than the end. Looking at the photos and re-reading log entries and blog posts constantly reminds me to appreciate and absorb every moment of the next decade just as I’ve done with the 15 years that have passed.

What a life it’s been — and God-willing, will continue to be.

This entry is part of an ongoing collaborative writing project entitled “Blogging in Formation”.