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.

Aviation Scholarships

No scratched up windows to get in the way of viewing the sunset's amazing colors.

As I’ve noted on many occasions — as if it even has to be said! — flying is expensive. Ruinously expensive.

And it’ll only get worse in the future — just ask anyone who started in the 60’s 70’s, or 80’s. They’ll regale you with stories about flying for a few paltry dollars per hour. Of course, they’ll also tell you that it seemed like an enormous amount of cash at the time. I’ve no doubt that the current generation of aviators will be spinning identical yarns to equally wide-eyed and disbelieving pilots in the decades to come.

It’s certainly possible for an individual today to chop thousands of dollars off the cost of a rating or certificate through the shrewd use of a few simple tips (see my list). But even with the best planning and decision-making, flying will never be free.

Or will it?

I’ve noticed an increasing number of aviation scholarships popping up in e-mails, newsletters, and web sites. You’d think that the prospect of flying for free would generate a stampede of applications for these generous programs. They’re worth thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of dollars each! But it ain’t necessarily so. In fact, I’ve known more than one of these scholarships to go unclaimed for lack of applicants.

So, in an effort to help get more of my fellow pilots on the road to the airport, I’d like to highlight a series of grants and scholarships that have come across my desk in recent weeks. Keep in mind that this list is by no means exhaustive. There are countless opportunities if you’re willing to dig deep enough, so ensure you’re following the newsletters and other publications put out by AOPA, EAA, IAC, local flight schools, regional pilot and airport associations, and anyone else you can think of.

1. The Vicki Cruse Memorial Scholarship

This one is offered by CP Aviation in Santa Paula, California in memory of Vicki Cruse, who was a top-level Unlimited aerobatic competitor and member of the U.S. National Aerobatic Team, National-level judge, president of the International Aerobatic Club, and Reno Air Race competitor.

CP is providing an emergency maneuvering training scholarship valued at $3,100. This scholarship aims to promote aviation safety through unusual attitude and aerobatic training. The scholarship includes three modules of the EMT course which includes stall/spin awareness, in-flight emergencies, and basic aerobatics.

This year’s scholarship includes transportation and lodging of up to $2,000 due to a donation made in memory of Danny Franscioni. I knew Dan; he was a talented pilot, tough competitor, and generous friend. His family also makes some fantastic wines. The Franscioni donation brings the value of the scholarship to $5,100.

All applications received by July 15 will be considered for this year’s award. Visit the IAC website for more information, or contact Judy Phelps at judy@cpaviation.com.

2. Greg Koontz Aerobatic Instructor Scholarship

Greg Koontz Aerobatics at Sky Country Lodge, Ashville, Alabama, will provide a full scholarship to promote aerobatic instruction. The scholarship consists of an eight-flight training program. All required ground school is included as well as four nights stay at Sky Country Lodge with its all-inclusive accommodations. The recipient would only be responsible for travel to and from the school.

The program is not an initial aerobatic course. For that reason the scholarship is targeted at those certificated flight instructors who have some tangible experience in aerobatics and have demonstrated by their activities that they are interested in becoming involved in aerobatic instruction.

To be eligible, one must have a current instructor certificate, be age 25 or younger, and have a demonstrated need for the financial support provided by this program.

3. The Douglas Youst Memorial Aerobatic Scholarship

The purpose of this scholarship is to promote aviation safety through aerobatics training. The recipient will receive a cash payment of $2,000, in the form of a check made payable to the aerobatic school where the recipient will be training. Training must be conducted at a facility approved by the Chapter 78 Scholarship committee and training must be completed within a 12 month period from receiving the grant. A list of approved facilities can be provided to the successful applicant.

The successful scholarship applicant must be well-rounded, involved in school and community activities as well as in aviation. The applicant’s academic record should demonstrate that they could successfully complete the educational portion of aerobatic training. Flight instructor comment reports or letters of recommendation must indicate that the successful applicant has the basic flying skills and potential to benefit from this type of training.

Qualifications: Applicants are preferred to be a certified flight instructor (CFI) or be receiving flight instruction with the intention of becoming a CFI. However, this is not a mandatory requirement. The applicant can be attending College or other post-secondary school or have recently completed College. The successful applicant will have demonstrated that he or she has the basic flying skills and potential to benefit from and to pass on lessons learned from this type of training. 


4. Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarships

The Ninety-Nines offer an annual series of scholarships for women. These range from initial pilot training all the way up to turbojet type ratings. The only hard-and-fast requirement is that the applicant be a member of the organization, something that’s quick and easy to do.

5. NBAA Scholarships

NBAA’s scholarship program offers nearly $100,000 annually in cash awards as tuition reimbursement for enrolled students, and nearly the same amount in monetary and training awards for working professionals in business aviation, including pilots, maintenance professionals, schedulers, dispatchers, flight attendants and flight technicians.

6. AOPA Flight Training Scholarships

The Aircraft Owners’s and Pilots Association administers this program. ASA, Jeppesen, and the Richard J. Santori Memorial Scholarship each award $5,000 to a student pilot pursuing an FAA sport, recreational, or private pilot certificate. The recipients are chosen based on merit, including previous accomplishments, ability to set goals, and demonstrated commitment to flight training.

7. EAA Flight Training Scholarships

The Experimental Aircraft Association offers dozens of scholarship programs, and while many of them are aimed at young people, there are also grants for professional pilots (I recommend the Clay Lacy Professional Pilot Scholarship, which provides up to $12,500 of support per year per award) and other adults.

The San Carlos Flight Center offers a fantastic scholarship program for those living in the Bay Area

The San Carlos Flight Center offers a fantastic scholarship program for those living in the Bay Area

8. The Upwind Scholarship

The San Carlos Flight Center in Northern California offers this regional program to allow high school students to earn their pilot certificates over the summer.

9. The Aero Club of New England

An east coast version of the previously mentioned Upwind Scholarship, ACONE offers nine scholarships totaling more than $25,000 annually for pilot training. These are regional awards limited to those who live in the New England area.

10. Southern California Aviation Association

I’ve saved what I consider to be one of the best scholarship programs for last. SCAA is not a name I was familiar with until recently. The organization started off in San Diego County and has recently expanded to include the greater SoCal area. SCAA is growing rapidly and I’ve been impressed by the size and scope of their offerings, which include Citation CJ type-ratings at both Simuflite and ProFlight. They’ve also provided a series of general flight training awards and offer scholarships for aviation mechanics.

As I said at the top, this is not a complete list. There are hundreds of scholarships, grants, and awards available for pilot training. Imagine what you could dig up if you really put your (proverbial) back into it!

If you’re a member of the “flying poor” (or aspire to join that august club), you might have more time than money. Searching out and applying for these scholarships can make all the difference in the world for both you and an aviation community that needs fresh faces if it has any hope of thriving in the future. And if you’re a veteran who’s already got his or her ratings, or simply doesn’t need the money, they’re equally valuable because we want to ensure the next generation of pilots is as large, well-trained, and successful as we have been.

The Good Life

I wasn't even upset that she was standing on the main landing gear fairings. :)

There are days when I really feel for those who’ve never had a taste of the Good Life. That is, the world of general aviation. The things they’re missing out on!

You might not know it from the way most airfields are ensconced by ominous chain link, barbed wire, and signage screaming of long prison sentences for trespassing, but some of the sweetest experiences are on the other side of that boundary. And I’m not even talking about the actual flying.

No, this is about the people. Folks who, if they work at the airport, probably go there on their day off as well just because they love it so much. Even when they don’t, their thoughts wander back to that place.

Is there anything less inviting than a barbed wire fence plastered with warning signs?

Is there anything less inviting than a barbed wire fence plastered with warning signs?

There are individuals who will work two and three jobs, laboring, scrimping, saving their whole lives to afford an airplane and then, just for the honor of helping another aviator, will toil in the summer heat or bitter cold to take pieces off their own aircraft and happily give them to a total stranger so he or she can get back in the air.

These people think nothing of giving that same stranger the combination to their hangar, the keys to their truck, and just as often provide food, lodging, or even a flight home. And strangest of all, those who give and give and give will feel that they were actually the fortunate ones! Because really, a fellow aviator is not a stranger but a sibling, a kindred spirit who shares a love of the sky. Put two pilots in a room and they’ll never run out of things to talk about.

General aviation pilots have literally flown around the world on the kindness of strangers. Don’t you wish we had just a bit more of that in our everyday lives?

I’ve only been in the game about fifteen years but I’ve already experienced all those things, and more. Sure, economic and regulatory burdens are downsizing our little world at an alarming pace, but that heart and soul is still present.

I’ve experienced GA from the other side, too. Many of my cherished moments revolve around providing someone with their first flight (and on a few occasions, their last) in a light aircraft. Or transporting them for medical treatment for Angel Flight.

I wasn't even upset that she was standing on the main landing gear fairings.

I wasn’t even upset that she was standing on the main landing gear fairings. :)

This little girl was one that I will always remember. Ashley had a serious illness of some sort and I was honored to bring her to Southern California for treatment on an Angel Flight. How amazed she was at the sights and sounds of flying, especially when I invited her to fly for a while from the right seat!

It was a transformative experience, because for a short time she was no longer the same sick girl that had boarded the aircraft. For the rest of the journey, she was on the controls, watching every move I made. All the way through the landing, in fact, taking in the full measure of the experience even though she was too short to even see over the glareshield.

You see, flying is like that.

This video reminded me of Ashley:

Constant Speed Propeller Maintenance

This cut-away shows the interior workings of a constant-speed prop hub.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that pilots tend to give insufficient attention to two critical airframe elements: tires and props. I’ve already covered tires, so today let’s look at the perils of improper maintenance on a constant-speed propeller.

On January 23, 2003 at about 4:20 p.m., Rob Cable — the grandson of Cable Airport founder Dewey Cable — took off from that airfield to perform a post-annual test flight in his twin-engine Beech 95 Travel Air. Six minutes later he was killed when the Beechcraft crashed in Rancho Cucamonga.

This accident was big news in the Southern California flying community. Cable Airport bills itself as “the world’s largest family-owned public-use airport” and anyone who’s been there can tell you what a scrappy little place it is. From the friendly people to the quirky Maniac Mike’s Cafe to the gently rolling terrain that seems to encompass every bit of the airfield, a trip to Cable always reminds me of what general aviation can — and should — be.

Set against the San Gabriel mountains just north of Ontario Airport, family-owned Cable is going strong long after so many other airports have fallen victim to the ravages of time and development.

Set against the San Gabriel mountains just north of Ontario Airport, family-owned Cable is going strong long after so many other airports have fallen victim to the ravages of time and development.

The NTSB investigation soon found that the cause of the accident was a mechanical failure. This alone made the crash significant. Statistics point to pilot error outweighing mechanical failure as the root cause of fatal accidents by a ratio of about 9-to-1.

In this case, it was determined that a 2.5 foot-long portion of one of the right engine’s propeller blades had failed. Think about that for a moment. This aircraft was equipped with two-bladed props, each of which had a diameter of about six feet. Therefore each blade was about three feet long. Losing 2.5 feet of a blade meant that the hub was now attached to a three-foot blade on one side and a broken 6″ stub on the other. Can you imagine the difference in weight between the two sides of the propeller?

According to the NTSB, the resulting imbalance cause a vibration severe enough that it overstressed the engine mount and tore the right engine off the airframe. A witness reported “reported observing the right engine hanging straight down toward the ground with the propeller stopped”. At that point the center of gravity would have rendered the aircraft uncontrollable.

It should be noted that while this was a massive failure, I’ve seen cases of props shedding just an inch or so off a blade tip causing such severe vibration that instruments in the cockpit were shattered, cowlings were torn away, and other serious damage was created.

One of the most famous constant-speed prop failures occurred during a test flight of the the Rutan Voyager in 1986. A blade broke off the rear engine near the prop hub. Voyager was equipped with composite propellers with blades which were much lighter than the metal Hartzell unit on Rob Cable’s Travel Air. Dick Rutan later wrote that after figuring out which engine had the problem, he moved the mixture control to the cut-off position. As the rear engine slowed down, the amplitude of the vibration increased, eventually tearing the powerplant completely off it’s mount. Those engine mounts were designed to handle 10g, so you can imagine the forces at work. Rutan said that after landing at Edwards Air Force Base, they found the engine lying on the bottom of the cowling, attached only by a safety cable they had installed for just such a purpose.

The famous Rutan Voyager in the hangar.  Note the composite MT Propeller assemblies on the front and rear engines.  They were replaced a few months later with metal props after losing a blade in flight.

The famous Rutan Voyager in the hangar. Note the composite MT Propeller assemblies on the front and rear engines. They were replaced a few months later with metal props after losing a blade in flight.

In Voyager’s case, the MT propellers were so troublesome that they were soon replaced with more traditional metal props specially manufactured by Hartzell (in record time — something the folks at Hartzell are still proud of) with specially shaped blades. The increase in aerodynamic efficiency more than made up for the increase in weight, and the program went on to successfully circumnavigate the planet on a single tank of gas.

Anyway, back to our story. The NTSB delved into the Travel Air’s maintenance records and found that, rather than being neglected as one might expect, the props had just been overhauled! Their next stop was the FAA-approved Repair Station that did the work, T&W Propeller in Chino. This is where things got particularly interesting for me, as I owned an aircraft with a constant-speed prop that had just been overhauled by that very same shop.

You can read the full report if you’re so inclined, but here’s just a partial list of what was found on the accident airplane’s propellers:

During the Hartzell participant’s teardown examination he made a series of observational findings. He observed the following discrepancies between the overhaul procedures specified by Hartzell in its maintenance manuals and the physical evidence found in the propellers:

1. The blade internal bores were clearly not in compliance with overhaul requirements for inspection, rework, and finishing. There was no paint and there appeared to be no chemical conversion coating in the bore area. There was extensive corrosion in the internal bearing bore area A, as defined by Hartzell Service Bulletin 136H. The participant stated that a proper overhaul requires removal of the blade bronze bushings in order to accomplish rework and inspection.

2. The hub arm of the right propeller had cadmium plating on top of deep corrosion pits. Such corrosion is required to be removed during overhaul.

3. A blade clamp in the right propeller had cadmium plating on top of deep corrosion pits. Such corrosion is required to be removed during overhaul.

4. Blades from the left propeller were too long. The aircraft is approved for installation of a propeller having a diameter of 72 to 70 inches. The length of blade L1 was measured to be approximately 32-5/8 inches long, which corresponds to a 74-inch diameter. Blades from the right propeller were measured to be approximately 31-5/8 to 31-3/4 inches, which is the correct length and corresponds to a 72-inch diameter.

5. Blades from the left propeller were impression stamped 8447-4 and 8447-12, and should have been stamped 8447-12R. Blades from the right propeller were impression stamped 8447, and should have been stamped 8447-12A.

6. Remnants of phenolic washers were found in the left propeller. The washers were approximately 1 to 2 inches in diameter and installed over the hub pilot tube, between the hub arm and blade butt of both blades. These were not Hartzell parts and such usage is not authorized.

7. Small particles, which appeared to be plastic cleaning media, were found in the grease in the blade balance hole.

8. The cadmium plating on the blade clamps and hubs was unusual. While much of the surfaces had bright cadmium plating, there were numerous spots that had no plating, areas of dull gray appearance, and areas that appeared worn. Portions appeared to have either deteriorated plating or had not been plated. Given the report that the propeller had only 5 hours of operation since overhaul, the general condition of the cadmium plating was considered very poor.

9. One O-ring, used as a seal between the clamp and hub was severely deteriorated. It had many cracks around the circumference of the outside diameter. The other three blade clamp O-rings were in good condition. It appeared that the deteriorated O-ring had not been replaced during overhaul.

In conclusion, the Hartzell participant made the following statement regarding the observed overhaul procedure discrepancies: “The most significant discrepancy was the presence of obvious, significant corrosion in the internal bearing bore area of the blades. This, plus the absence of required corrosion protection (chemical conversion coating and paint) in this area, clearly indicates that proper overhaul was not accomplished.”

Even if you don’t speak “A&P”, the gist is undoubtedly clear: T&W Propeller was criminally negligent in the performance of their work and it resulted in a fatal accident. The FAA quickly issued Airworthiness Directive 2003-13-17, which required another overhaul of my improperly zero-timed constant-speed prop. I believe the price tag for the two overhauls was nearly $6,000. Welcome to the world of aviation! It reminds me of an old joke where a prospective student pilot asks a grizzled veteran how much money it would take if he wanted to learn to fly. The answer: “All of it.”

It was about this time that I realized that the “FAA Certified Repair Station” designation means absolutely nothing. I sent the prop to a small, non-CRS shop in Bakersfield called Johnson & Sons and got a better result for less money. Caveat emptor.

I also started researching propeller-related failures and realized that most of them are a direct result of neglect on the part of the owner or operator. Just like an engine, props have a recommended Time Between Overhaul (TBO). For most constant-speed props, it’s 2400 hours or six years, whichever comes first. Not many us of put 400 tach hours on our planes each year, so the six year calendar interval will almost always be reached first. And for reasons I’ll never understand, it’s the calendar limit which is most likely to be ignored. Inside the hub are seals, bearings, and other parts which age with exposure to the thermal cycles, humidity, and so on. But time and time again, you’ll find aircraft with 500 hours and 10 years on the propeller assembly and the owner claiming it’s not anywhere near TBO.

The recommended TBO is not mandatory if you’re flying under Part 91, and as a result it’s not uncommon to see aircraft with 10, 20, or even 30 years since the prop and/or governor were overhauled. Personally, I’d much rather fly behind a 30 year old engine than a 30 year old prop. Why? I know how to fly an airplane without an engine (and not just because I fly gliders)! If the powerplant takes the day off, I can still control the aircraft quite nicely. But losing a blade? That’s likely to create a problem no piloting skill can rescue you from. The more I learn about propellers, the more convinced I am of this. At the very least, I’d have the prop hub opened and inspected by a (hopefully) trustworthy shop for what’s called a “re-seal” job.

I visited the Hartzell factory in Piqua, Ohio about ten years ago and took this photo of an actual constant-speed propeller which had been cut-away and turned into a display model. (Extra credit if any of you can tell me what type of constant-speed prop this is. Clue: look at the relationship between the spring and the piston in the hub.)

This cut-away shows the interior workings of a constant-speed prop hub.

This cut-away shows the interior workings of a constant-speed prop hub.

You can see that the blades are individual pieces held in the hub by a beefy retention bearing. With the prop spinning at 2600 RPM, there are more than 20 tons of centrifugal force trying to rip that blade out of the hub. As I mentioned, even if a shed blade didn’t hit the airframe as it departed, the resulting imbalance would almost certainly tear the engine off and shift the center-of-gravity to an uncontrollable location.

Suddenly, skimping on that prop maintenance doesn’t seem like such a hot idea, does it?

A spinning prop also exhibits gyroscopic properties, so every time the aircraft is pitched or yawed, immense forces twist and bend those blades. You can see an extreme example of that in a slow-motion video of a helicopter main rotor blade that I posted a while back. Rotorcraft airfoils are far less rigid than any constant-speed prop, but the principal is similar.

Aerobatic pilots know all about gyroscopic effect. If you’ve been amazed by scenes like this at an airshow and wondered how they do it, most of the spectacular maneuvers like tumbles are produced with gyroscopic effect.

The aircraft is largely being thrown about the sky from forces generated by the prop. But you pay for it with high stress on the item the prop is connected to: the crankshaft. My Pitts S-2B once broke a crankshaft due to high stress imposed on it from a two blade metal Hartzel prop after repeated snap rolls. After that, the owners elected to spring for a new light-weight, 3-blade composite MT propeller.

The takeaway is this: propellers are under high stress in flight, and although they’re quite reliable, due to their nature when things go bad they are more prone to an unrecoverable failure than a reciprocating powerplant and thus deserve even more respect than the engine they are attached to.

Low and Slow

route

Early on in my initial flight training, I started hearing occasional references to a requirement for a couple of solo “cross-country” flights. Nobody actually defined the term for me, and this was in the years before the partnership between Google and your ordinary smart phone made figuring these things out a non-event, so in my mind I was looking forward to the adventure of flying literally across the entire U.S. and seeing it all from the air.

I was half relieved, half disappointed to find out that for the purposes of obtaining a my private pilot certificate, “cross country” meant landing at an airport at least 50 nautical miles away from my departure point. Fifty miles? In an airplane? Now how long could that possibly take, I wondered? As it turns out, between the flight planning, pre-flight, taxi time, run-up checks, and just being a slow-moving neophyte, it could take quite a while.

The 50 nm standard also applied to instrument rating and commercial pilot certificate. The ATP certificate was even less restrictive: logging “cross country” time didn’t even require a landing. And last but not least, the general definition of the term in 14 CFR 61.1(b)(3)(i) only required landing in a different place, regardless of distance. You could takeoff from John Wayne Airport and land at Tustin MCAS two miles away and it qualified as “cross country”. What kind of crazy world was this?

The vaunted cross country flight of my dreams would have to wait a while.

Eventually I did start flying across the entire country, and over the years I’ve done it in a wide variety of aircraft ranging from single engine recips down low to the Gulfstream up at FL450. Off the top of my head, I’ve made the trip in a Skylane, Tiger, Cirrus (3x), Pitts, Diamond Star, and Gulfstream. I even did the mid-20s in an unpressurized King Air while sucking on oxygen. Each has it’s pros and cons.

In a more modest aircraft, the trip is always different because of varying weather, even when flying the same general route. You see and feel more of the land when you’re down there. In a jet, it’s the exact opposite. The transcon flights always feel the same, regardless of route or direction. You’re up high, way above the weather, and can’t see much detail. Of course, that’s a welcome trade-off for the ability to climb through ice, clouds, and bumps to smooth clear air on top while making the entire flight in a few short hours.

A couple of weeks ago I made a memorable cross-country once again, bringing a newly purchased 2007 DA-40 DiamondStar to Southern California from upstate New York. And as always, the least pleasant part of the trip was that spent on the airliner. After a full day of work on Thursday, we began with a rush-hour drive to LAX and a jam-packed red-eye to JFK, arriving at 5 a.m. We grabbed a rental car and drove up to White Plains for a pre-purchase inspection and test flight with the soon-to-be ex-owner.

This is the 2007 DA-40 XLS that we ferried across the country.

This is the 2007 DA-40 XLS that we ferried across the country.

It’s places like White Plains that make me appreciate the weather we’re blessed with in Southern California. We can fly any time of the year in jeans and a t-shirt with little worry about ice, thunderstorms, or whether the very act of starting the engine will damage it unless you carefully pre-heat first. In New York, many folks just put the airplane in a hangar and walk away for six months. Sure, you can fly, but it’s not exactly fun.

It was bitterly cold and windy in White Plains, as it always seems to be when I’m there. Winds gusting to nearly 30 knots. The simple act of opening the canopy is a challenge in those conditions.  The DA-40 front and rear canopies become sails, and if you’re not careful the wind will rip them right out of your hand, snapping them up with sufficient force to damage the hinges.  Even with three layers of clothing, a jacket, hat, and gloves, my limbs were frozen solid by the time we walked across the ramp to take our first look at the aircraft.

But the inspection and test flight went well and the logbooks were in order, so money and title were exchanged and we departed mid-day for Morristown, NJ to get some paperwork notarized. Here’s a little know fact: many FBOs have a notary on staff. Who would have thought?

By this time, I was already a bit tired, but weather was bearing down on us from the Midwest. This has been a crazy year for winter weather. A few days before we flew out to New York, a solid line of storms extending from the Gulf of Mexico well into Canada would have made the trip impossible in a DA-40. It literally bisected the country. The 24 and 36 hour prog charts predicted similar chaos descending on the New England area, powered by a collision of unusually cold polar air and warm moisture from the Gulf. Bad juju.

Our strategy was simple: fly VFR. If we can see the weather, we can avoid it. This is something they don’t often tell you when you’re spending all that money pursuing an instrument rating.  In a light aircraft, sometimes VFR is safer. The DiamondStar has no de-ice capability, so if the clouds are below freezing, you can either stay out of them or, if that’s not safely possible, remain on the ground.

Anyway, our trip to the west started off with the compass pointing south. Past Washington D.C. and the infamous ADIZ, tracing the Appalachians and we skirted the eastern edge of a band of mixed rain, ice, and snow.  The DA-40 had an active XM weather subscription, so we were able to see the big weather picture as we flew.  It was a good thing, too, because headwinds kept our ground speed in the 80-90 knot range for most of the trip.

The XM weather was a big help.  You can see the snow and rain we were avoiding as we flew over Tennessee.

The XM weather was a big help. You can see the snow and rain we were avoiding as we flew over Tennessee.

I’m a big fan of the DiamondStar, but one “gotcha” with this aircraft is the low Vno speed:  129 knots.  At low altitudes, the airplane will cruise in the yellow arc, so any turbulence requires an airspeed reduction.  Once you’re above 6,000 feet or so, the indicated airspeed gets low enough that full-throttle cruise will be below that Vno limitation.

I made the trip with a talented automotive engineer and designer named David who, while he’s not the owner of the plane, is going to be the primary pilot.  He’d never flown east of Palm Springs, so this was a big deal!  I’m actually glad the weather was a challenge, because it presented a much more valuable learning opportunity for him.  Between our low altitude, the (relatively) high terrain of the Appalachian range, and the wind, we spent the first four or five hours fighting some annoying up- and downdrafts.  Or should I say, he did.  After ensuring the path ahead was clear, I took a nap!

The clouds were below freezing, so we stayed low.  You can see sunlight ahead -- a good sign.

The clouds were below freezing, so we stayed low. You can see sunlight ahead — a good sign.

The first fuel stop was a night landing at Lewisburg, West Virginia where somehow it was even colder than in White Plains.  A quick bathroom break and we were in the air again, finally in clear skies on a direct route to our overnight destination of Knoxville, TN.  I should point out that when we left New York, we had no defined route and no hotel reservations. Where we went and where stopped for the night was going to be dictated by weather.  There are plenty of airports all over the country.  Rarely is one far away.  If either of us didn’t like what was ahead or just wanted to stop, we’d stop.  And our plan did change several times based on what we were seeing.  Even fuel stops were fluid, as the strong winds decreased our range.

Day two was much easier.  The weather kept us heading southwest until we passed Birmingham, Alabama but was relatively good during our fuel stops in Greenwood, MS and Ada, OK.  Greenwood is an interesting place.  It’s got a huge new control tower and scads of old airliners on the ramp, but curiously, no traffic.  Even the tower controller seemed to be half-asleep.

Greenwood is home to a nice but little-used airport.  GE Capital maintains this boneyeard for old airliners.

Greenwood is home to a nice but little-used airport. GE Capital maintains this boneyeard for old airliners.

The FBO manager, quite a character in his own right, told us the tower was the result of military activity.  They use the airport for practice approaches.  The airliners were old lease returns that GE Capital was storing or parting out.  I asked why they’d part out airliners that looked relatively new and he replied that some of them were just odd cases, like a 7,000 hour 747 that had a container of mercury spilled inside.  Apparently the cleanup costs made salvaging the airframe economically unfeasible.

We ended the day at Tradewinds Airport in Amarillo, TX because David had relatives there.  His uncle was leaving a couple days later to take this homemade trailer to Florida and bring home a new mast for his 40′ sailboat.  I think one of the lessons David learned from the trip is that most of the country is very windy compared to southern California.  All that stuff he learned about positioning the controls for crosswinds that seemed so meaningless in Orange County was suddenly important.

David's uncle fabricated this trailer to haul a sailboat mast across the country.

David’s uncle fabricated this trailer to haul a sailboat mast across the country.

Day three (or four if you want to count airlining) found us ahead of schedule, so we made a detour toward Roswell, NM for some alien beef jerky, a visit to the International UFO Museum and Research Center, and an even larger aircraft boneyard.  We had hoped to make it as far as Flagstaff, AZ by the end of the day, but new hazards started to appear in the form of lowering clouds and rising terrain.

The terrain issue out there is interesting.  There were no “mountains” per se, just a ground elevation that slowly, inexorably rose toward the heavens.  We were at 10,500 MSL yet only 3,000 feet above the flat terrain.  The squeeze started to make itself known right about the time the sun was setting.  It was raining, we were getting a wee bit of ice, even in clear air, and the thick layer of clouds above was blocking out much of the remaining sunlight.  So rather than press on toward a dark night time approach into Flagstaff — which, by the way, is surrounded by mountains as high as 12,700 feet — we diverted to Gallup NM, arriving at our hotel just in time to see the lights go out at Superbowl XLVII.

Our final leg on day four brought clear skies and an actual tailwind (!) as we coasted into Henderson, Nevada where David was due to work out some kinks in a new bus that the company was displaying at the International LCT Show.

The Grand Canyon

It was fascinating to see how these trade shows go together.  For one thing, the MGM Grand’s convention center was going to be full of limos, buses, and other massive vehicles.  The logistics required just to get every vehicle loaded into the building in the right order was quite significant.  Everyone wanted to have their vehicle displayed a certain way, so these behemoths were moving to and fro in a very confined space.  I’m amazed there were no collisions.

Even something as simple as hanging the signage for a company’s booth was a big deal.  It’s done by union members and therefore the cost of hoisting these relatively small signs can be as much as $3,000.

The Grech Motors display coming together at the 2013 LCT show at the MGM Grand.

The Grech Motors display coming together at the 2013 LCT show at the MGM Grand.

The trip ended for me in Las Vegas after about 23 hours of flight time and 210 gallons of fuel burned.  David stayed at the show and I took the Southwest shuttle back to Orange County.  Another coast-to-coast round-trip in the books.  If you haven’t done it, I highly recommend “low and slow” as a great way to see the country, as long as you’re up to the challenge of course.  A few tips:

  • Be flexible.
    Don’t get attached to any particular route, airport, or schedule.  It’s amazing how many solutions make themselves known once you do this.
  • Use CRM.
    “Cockpit resource management” doesn’t just mean another pilot.  It includes ATC, XM weather, your iPad, and whatever else is available.
  • Don’t forget about VFR.
    Sometimes that makes a trip more flyable, not less.
  • Manage your risk.
    Especially if you’re new at traversing long distances, tall mountains, unfamiliar airspace, and weather.  Ask yourself how tired you are, how much experience you have in the aircraft you’re flying, and what tools are available.  We had a glass panel, a great autopilot, a satellite datalink, and two pilots on board.
  • Know when to say when.
    If we had been a day later departing New York, we’d have spent several days there waiting out the weather.  And that’s fine.  Recognizing that light aircraft have limits and that we cannot control the weather is like a 12 step program for pilots. It’s not easy, but we have to do it.

Nothing says “freedom” quite like hopping into an airplane and seeing the States from a couple thousand feet up. As the Southwest ad says, “you’re now free to move about the country”. May that never change.

Here are a few photos from the trip: