Aviation Myths, Part 1

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Over the past decade and a half I’ve been keeping a mental list of frequently encountered misconceptions about flying. For some reason, I recently Googled “aviation myths” and found quite a few articles on the topic and it inspired me to finally set my own list to virtual “paper”.

This list is not exhaustive, but it does represent the myths I encounter most frequently. Some of these are misconceptions held by non-pilots, others are more common among student aviators or even experienced professionals. I’ve written about a few of these in the past, but thought it might be worthwhile to throw the whole list out there for others to chew on. I’m planning to make this a three-part series, with five myths per post.

Have you encountered any of these before? Do you disagree with any of them? If so, I’d love to get your feedback. OK, here we go!

Myth #1: Logging “actual IMC” is only allowed when flying in clouds or low visibility.

Some aviation myths and misconceptions are absurd while others are entirely understandable. This one falls into the latter category. Even a non-pilot would find it logical to assume that logging flight time in the “actual IMC” column would require one to actually fly in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). Thankfully for those of you who are attempting to build instrument time, it ain’t necessarily so.

14 CFR 61.51(g) states that “A person may log instrument time only for that flight time when the person operates the aircraft solely by reference to instruments under actual or simulated instrument flight conditions.” In other words, any time conditions are such that maintaining control of the aircraft by outside visual reference is in serious doubt and the instruments are used in lieu of those references, one may log actual IMC flight time.

The classic example of this situation is flying on a dark, moonless night over unlighted terrain (desert, ocean, mountains, etc). If John F. Kennedy, Jr. had realized this, he might be alive today. He took off from New York and headed toward the island of Martha’s Vineyard on just such a night. The reported and actual visibility was far above VFR minimums. In fact it was a CAVU night. Unfortunately, without any discernible horizon to look at, his situation required flying on the instruments. It’s not something primary or instrument instructors often pass along to their students, but we should.

If my word isn’t sufficient on this issue, here’s an excerpt from an FAA legal opinion issued by the agency’s Assistant Chief Counsel.

As you know, Section 61.51(c)(4) provides rules for the logging of instrument flight time which may be used to meet the requirements of a certificate or rating, or to meet the recent flight experience requirements of Part 61. That section provides in part, that a pilot may log as instrument flight time only that time during which he or she operates the aircraft solely by reference to instruments, under actual (instrument meteorological conditions (imc)) or simulated instrument flight conditions.

“Simulated” instrument conditions occur when the pilot’s vision outside of the aircraft is intentionally restricted, such as by a hood or goggles. “Actual” instrument flight conditions occur when some outside conditions make it necessary for the pilot to use the aircraft instruments in order to maintain adequate control over the aircraft. Typically, these conditions involve adverse weather conditions.

To answer your first question, actual instrument conditions may occur in the case you described a moonless night over the ocean with no discernible horizon, if use of the instruments is necessary to maintain adequate control over the aircraft. The determination as to whether flight by reference to
instruments is necessary is somewhat subjective and based in part on the sound judgment of the pilot.

Note that, under Section 61.51(b)(3), the pilot must log the conditions of the flight. The log should include the reasons for determining that the flight was under actual instrument conditions in
case the pilot later would be called on to prove that the actual instrument flight time logged was legitimate.

I have logged actual IMC this way. Once you leave the Los Angeles basin, flying over the desert southwest on moonless nights can necessitate being on the gauges every bit as much as flying in a cloud. Even if there is some moonlight or a small town out there, the ambient light put out by today’s glass panels can obliterate the view out the windscreen. In those cases it’s completely legitimate and proper to claim that time in your logbook.

Myth #2: Flying without appropriate charts is illegal.

In my experience, this is one of the most pervasive myths out there. As with logging actual IMC, it makes sense. Why wouldn’t the FAA require pilots to carry current versions of whatever pertinent charts applied to their route of flight?

Answer: 14 CFR 91.103 already requires pilots to becoming familiar with “all available information” concerning a flight. How an aviator obtains that information is up to them. Simply requiring a person to carry a large folded piece of paper isn’t going to necessarily familiarize them with anything. Believe me, as an instructor, I see that truism put to the test every day. I’ve seen pilots with a 14″ color moving map display have absolutely no idea where they were or where they were going.

As far as the charts are concerned, the FAA details their policy on chart carriage on their web site.

The subject of current charts was thoroughly covered in an article in the FAA’s July/August 1997 issue of FAA Aviation News. That article was cleared through the FAA’s Chief Counsel’s office. In that article the FAA stated the following:

“You can carry old charts in your aircraft.” “It is not FAA policy to violate anyone for having outdated charts in the aircraft.”

“Not all pilots are required to carry a chart.” “91.503..requires the pilot in command of large and multiengine airplanes to have charts.” “Other operating sections of the FAR such as Part 121 and Part 135 operations have similar requirements.”

…”since some pilots thought they could be violated for having outdated or no charts on board during a flight, we need to clarify an important issue. As we have said, it is NOT FAA policy to initiate enforcement action against a pilot for having an old chart on board or no chart on board.” That’s because there is no regulation on the issue.

…”the issue of current chart data bases in handheld GPS receivers is a non-issue because the units are neither approved by the FAA or required for flight, nor do panel-mounted VFR-only GPS receivers have to have a current data base because, like handheld GPS receivers, the pilot is responsible for pilotage under VFR.

“If a pilot is involved in an enforcement investigation and there is evidence that the use of an out-of-date chart, no chart, or an out-of-date database contributed to the condition that brought on the enforcement investigation, then that information could be used in any enforcement action that might be taken.”

If you, as an FAA Safety Inspector, Designated Pilot Examiner, Flight Instructor, or other aviation professional are telling pilots something other than the foregoing then you are incorrect.

From a practical standpoint, some airplanes like the Pitts S-1 are so small that there’s no place to carry a chart. Even if you wanted to use one, how would you do so when the airplane is about as stable as an Robinson R-22 in a hover? Can you imagine the pilot of a Cri-Cri or BD-5J trying to use a chart while in flight?

I’m not discouraging chart usage. Quite the contrary, I carry them myself. In fact, there are times when it is legally required. The aforementioned Part 121, 135, and 91 Large Airplane rules call for it when flying under those regulations. Some Class B VFR airspace transitions require a current terminal chart (the LA Special Flight Rules Area comes to mind). But for the most part, they are not legally required for Part 91 operators, even when flying under IFR!

Myth #3: Perfect eyesight is a requirement to be a pilot.

This one is a holdover from the days when most pilots came from the ranks of the military, which did require perfect eyesight. Even today most branches of the military require 20/20 vision (or better) for pilot candidates (helicopter requirements are occasionally a bit less stringent). But even they will allow for corrective lenses in many cases once they’ve invested the seven figure sums that it requires to transform a person into a mission-qualified aviator.

The FAA’s vision requirement for civilians is — and has been for many years — that a pilot’s eyesight be correctable to 20/40 for non-professional aviators. Those requiring a first- or second-class medical certificate must be correctable to 20/20 for distant vision and 20/40 for near vision.

Color blind? No problem. You can still fly with virtually no restrictions. In fact, you can obtain a medical certificate even if you’ve only got one eye. Pilots can get medical clearance after major brain surgery. While on anti-depressants. After heart and other organ transplants. You can even fly if you’re completely deaf! I’m aware of at least one pilot, a woman named Jessica Cox, who has no arms and still flies her aircraft solo. She demonstrated that she could do everything necessary to safely operate the aircraft using only her feet.

These days, you can fly gliders and Light Sport aircraft without any medical certificate at all. Old airport codgers may complain about how things ain’t the way they used to be, but in this case that’s a good thing.

Myth #4: TBO is mandatory.

Time-between-overhaul intervals are not well understood by most aircraft owners. For one thing, while most pilots understand that manufacturers establish a recommended hourly interval between major overhauls, they are often unaware that overhaul is also recommended once it reaches 12 years of age. This is important because most mechanics will tell you that the greatest enemy of piston aircraft engines is lack of use. One of the easiest ways to maximize engine life is to simply fly the plane frequently. This ensures the oil is brought up to operating temperature, any water in the system is boiled off, and the internal parts of the engine are coated in a protective layer of oil.

For non-commerical operators, TBO intervals are simply recommendations. There is no legal requirement to overhaul an engine at any time. Nor does exceeding TBO void insurance or warranty coverage. Plenty of people take published TBO intervals with a grain of salt, preferring instead to allow oil consumption, spectrographic oil analysis, borescope inspections, and other such metrics dictate when the engine is ready for overhaul.

Even commercial operators don’t necessarily have to overhaul at TBO. The FAA often grants extensions to those intervals by as much as 50% or more.

Myth #5: Repairs must always be accomplished using FAA-approved parts.

Let’s say you’re fortunate enough to fly an original 1917 Sopwith F-1 Camel — one of the preeminent fighters of the first World War. Where are you supposed to go for parts? They stopped manufacturing them nearly a century ago.

Okay, that’s an extreme example. But there are plenty of orphaned aircraft types still flying. Even among those that are still supported, parts can be exorbitantly expensive, even to the point of rendering an otherwise fine aircraft economically unfeasible to maintain.

Thankfully, 14 CFR 21.303(b)(2) and 21.9 allow owners of an aircraft — any aircraft, not just a vintage warbird — to manufacture parts for their airplane or pay someone to make them as long as the replacement part is identical to the original. The only caveat is that the owner must participate in the manufacture of the part by providing specifications, design information, quality control, materials, and/or supervising the fabrication of the item.

A personal example: a Pitts S-2B in which I share ownership needed a new seat back for the pilot’s seat. The old one was cracked and slowly failing after years of hard aerobatics. Now this is literally a flat rectangular piece of half-inch plywood with wood blocks attached to the back side to hold it in place. No fancy curves, shapes or fasteners. Just a plain old piece of wood. As I recall, the manufacturer of the Pitts series of biplanes, Aviat, wanted something close to thousand bucks for that part. We were able to manufacture one for a few dollars.

If you’re the kind of person who’s handy and has access to the proper tools, you can manufacture any part for your aircraft. A wing spar, a new crankcase, a propeller, and anything in between. If you’re not so handy? You can still hire a machinist, friend, or virtually anyone else to make the article as long as you materially participate in the process and create a part that is identical to the original in form and function — in other words, “airworthy”.

EAA posted an 85-minute video last August entitled “Owner Produced Parts for Certificated Aircraft” which covers this topic in great detail.

[... continue reading in Part 2]

Better or Worse?

That’s what my optomotrist is always asking me as I peer through the phoropter during my annual eye exam. It’s also what I ask myself in the never-ending battle which pits two schools of thought against one another on the state of general aviation in the United States.

On one shoulder stands a little guy who points out how flying is becoming less accessible due to escalating costs and regulatory burdens. He says, look at the number of active pilot falling each year, see how airports have become unwelcoming barbed wire fortresses, and notice how even the best primary flight schools are struggling just to survive.

His nemesis on the other shoulder, however, points out things like this article heralding the availability of a instrument rating for French pilots and and says “remember how good you’ve got it here in the U.S., buddy!”. Today it’s this perspective which is winning the fight.

It’s 2011. People have been flying on instruments for 82 years! How is it possible that France’s general aviation community hasn’t had an instrument rating available until now? It may be a perfectly sensible history for pilots on the other side of the Atlantic, but to most aviators on this continent it will engender serious puzzlement. What did they do when Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) were present?

The answer is most likely: nothing. They’d stay on the ground and wait until the sky cleared. Hard to imagine that as the only viable option for a GA pilot in the 21st century, but there you have it. You see, French pilots did technically have access to an instrument rating prior to today. I say technically because it was so expensive and onerous to obtain that very few of Europe’s non-professional pilots even attempt it. Known as the JAA instrument rating, this is how the AOPA article describes it:

To earn an instrument rating under pan-European rules, pilots must enroll in a professional flight training school, spending more than 20,000 euros and studying such topics as the hydraulic systems of airliners and calculations of Mach number, according to AOPA France.

Twenty thousand euros is approximately $30,000 U.S. dollars at today’s exchange rates. And note that the article says “more than” 20,000 euros, so who knows what a real-world number would be for a typical non-professional European pilot. Beyond the financial cost, there’s also the time investment. The ground study course for the JAA instrument rating is several hundred hours long and covers items of no use to a GA instrument pilot such as the aforementioned heavy metal hydraulic systems and Mach number computations.

The presence of these study topics mystifies me. Some would claim that the JAA instrument rating simply makes no distinction between the professional and non-professional instrument pilot and trains every student to the same standard. But we do the exact same thing here in the United States. Once you’ve received a U.S. instrument rating, that’s as much official instrument training as you’ll receive up to and including your type rating for that airline gig. Items like Mach computation and hydraulic systems are placed in the aircraft-specific training, which is as it should be. If your airplane is not capable of achieving high airspeeds and/or does not have hydraulic systems, why should you be studying those things when pursuing an instrument rating?

Suddenly I have a lot more respect for the FAA. Or at least, for those who designed our rating and certificate programs, as our path from neophyte to instrument-capable pilot is a much shorter and effective one. As they say, people vote with their wallets, and you’ll find far more European pilots with U.S. instrument ratings than Europeans with the JAA equivalent.

As if this isn’t enough, there are also instrument ratings of various types for individual European countries, each varying in their requirements and privileges. The United Kingdom has one. France’s new instrument rating is another example. The problem is that those ratings are only valid when flying in that one country’s airspace. Oh, and you have to be flying an aircraft registered in that country. European countries are akin to American states in geographic size, so if you’re an American, imagine having your instrument privileges limited to your home state. Doesn’t make flying very convenient, does it?

This is why most GA airplanes in Europe are registered in the United States. Pilots can then fly throughout Europe using the U.S. instrument rating. In fact, this practice is so common that there are even organizations like N-Flyers which exist to defend this work-around as the only viable way for European GA pilots to legally fly on instruments throughout the Continent. It also reduces cost because aircraft maintenance can also be performed using U.S. standards.

Assuming you surmount the JAA instrument rating hurdles or fly an N-registered aircraft using a U.S. instrument rating, Europe still leaves you with a few other surprises of a financial nature. Flying in Europe is extraordinarily expensive. Avgas is far more pricey, the landing fees for even small airports can be $100 or more, and you will find yourself the recipient of a bill for air traffic services called “Eurocharges”. This sort of thing has been proposed for the United States by various administrations under the neutral-sounding name “user fees”.

Eurocharges are levied based on distance flown and aircraft weight, and the future may not be a bright one when it comes to these fees. PPL/IR Europe has an article detailing how Eurocharges are computed, and notes:

Recent developments, however, are much worse for GA. The UK CAA (strongly supported by the airlines – or is it the other way round?) have suggested abandoning the weight formula altogether, meaning that a light aircraft would cost the same as a 747! With current basic rates, that would come to around £1 per NM in UK airspace, but the basic rate would have to go up in order to compensate for the relative loss of revenue from larger aircraft, bringing the cost per NM closer to £2. The average across all Eurocontrol airspaces would then be around Euro 1.80 (£1.20) per NM. That’s one way of doing away with all those small bills. The few GA aircraft left flying would each generate huge bills!

To add insult to injury, the 2-tonne threshold is also under threat, so if the airlines get their way, you could end up paying £2 per NM to fly your Cherokee IFR in the UK!

The author may be positing at worst-case scenario, but just for reference, £2 is $3.21 US at today’s exchange rate. If we had that sort of thing here, a one way flight from Los Angeles to Las Vegas would cost $642 in air traffic fees alone.

So while the news of France’s new instrument rating is good, and hopefully the start of better things to come for pilots in the Eurozone, it doesn’t take much research on the state of general aviation around the world to realize that things don’t seem so bad here at home. Our challenge here in the U.S. is to avoid complacency, because user fees and bureaucracy are a perpetual threat, and I’ve no doubt they can turn our aviation system into Europe’s faster than any of us care to admit.

Are Needle, Ball, and Airspeed Obsolete?

With the advent of the Glass Age, I’ve been seeing more and more pilots question the need for traditional needle/ball/airspeed instrument skills. Why bother to learn the technology of yesterday, they ask?

On the surface, this question makes sense. After all, who even manufactures aircraft with non-glass panels anymore? Heck, even the venerable Legend Cub is being built with a Dynon D10A these days. At my home field, we have a Waco UPF-7 (a 1930’s era open-cockpit biplane) with a Garmin glass panel. It looks more like you’re sitting on the bridge of the starship Enterprise than in a barnstormer ready to dust crops.

There’s no doubt that glass panels have fewer insidious failure modes than analog instruments. Instead of an attitude indicator that slowly rolls over (possibly taking the pilot with it), you get a giant red “X” leaving no doubt about the quality of the AHRS data.

And, lest we forget, many of the pilots who balk at an six-pack instrument panel probably don’t see one that often. They fly newer airframes, experimentals, turbines, and read industry publications that rarely even show a non-glass instrument panel. Out of sight, out of mind. So the question is a good one, but my answer may surprise you.

In my opinion, the traditional analog instruments are not obsolete, if only by virtue of the fact that out of the 200,000+ GA aircraft in existence, probably 90% of them have the older style panel. These airplanes are mostly certificated in the Normal category, and it would be neither cost effective or legally possible to put newer style instrument panels into those aircraft at the present time.

Of course, if you have an RV-X and only plan on flying that airplane and it’s got glass and you can fly it proficiently (including partial-panel, whatever that may look like in your ship), then there is no need to be able to fly with a turn coordinator, altimeter, and airspeed indicator.

On the other hand, when I train students to fly IFR in glass airplanes like the SR22 and Columbia, I ensure they can fly a traditional six pack as well via simulator training. There are several reasons for this:

  • I want them to be a complete instrument pilot able to fly more than just an Avidyne or G1000
  • Second, I want them to understand the way analog instruments work since there are analog instruments even in those glass aircraft, and they have different failure modes and different scans than an AHRS-based system
  • Third, it’s harder to go “back” to analog instruments than it is to go “forward” to glass panels if you’re already a rated and experienced pilot, so I want the heavy lifting to be done while we’re already doing the heavy lifting: during primary instrument training.

I disagree with those who feel instructors are anti-GPS, anti-glass, attached to older technology, or provide unrealistic failure modes for no good reason. I know none who have that attitude. On the other hand, we often turn those devices off or direct a student’s focus elsewhere because it’s necessary for training. If we don’t push your workload to the breaking point, fail instruments and radios, etc. then we’re not doing our job.

Anyone can fly IFR when everything’s working. I’ve seen pilots who aren’t even instrument trained do it. But when you’re on one engine or partial panel in the clouds, a passenger is airsick, you need a bathroom break, the fuel is getting low, it’s night, and you’re tired, that’s not the time to find out how well you perform when stress is high. That’s why we push you hard. If you ever have a bad day and come out the other side in one piece, you’ll understand that.

I Love Days Like This

It’s so rare to get true winter weather here in Southern California. But as Lesley always says, it never fails to rain on opening night, and last night was no exception. Boy did it pour!

I nearly broke into a Gene Kelly-esque dance all the way down Avenue of the Arts as I made my way to OCPAC for the opening night performance of Die Zauberflöte. Ave. of the Arts even has the right kind of street lights for it! But there’s something about the ultra-modern look of the theaters which kept me from indulging myself. (Note: I may also have been concerned about looking stupid, although that’s never stopped me before).

I’ve been making quite a few flights to northern California lately, and this weather has certainly made that part of my day job interesting. I’m not used to seeing low pressure systems around here, but California has been surrounded by them for the past week. Several cold fronts have blown through, bringing lower snow levels and higher concerns about in-flight icing. It’s the one thing that really worries me when flying, and it must be approached with extreme caution. This is especially true in fast composite ships with so-called “laminar flow” airfoils, as contaminating this kind of wing leads to an especially dramatic loss of performance.

The last two round trips have been in a TKS-equipped SR22. Despite low freezing levels and airmets for icing, IFR conditions, mountain obscuration, and turbulence, I was comfortable flying the route because I knew the tops were 10-12,000′. There were plenty of alternate airports nearby, and the deicing fluid was topped off to give me some time to get out of any ice which did build. As it turns out, there was only one bit of ice worth noting, right as I climbed out of the top of a cloud layer. The worst icing is often found at the tops of clouds, so that wasn’t a surprise. For the most part, between ATC and PIREPS I was able to stay out of the precip most of the time when I was above the freezing level.

The TKS system works much better when you prime it properly. The first time I ever tried using TKS, it seemed to be useless. It was a summer flight across the Dakotas a few years ago. No one had ever told me that it can take several minutes for the fluid to make its way to the outboard panels, and by that time the ice could have covered the panels so thoroughly that they’d be unable to protect the wing.

Now, my standard preflight procedure on the system is to top off the TKS tank (the only way you’ll know how much fluid is on board), turn on the pump to ensure it works, and wait for fluid to come out of each panel before turning it off. Then, when you enable the system in flight, you’ll get immediate protection. I’ve standardized on coating the wings and tail surfaces with deice fluid (“normal” setting) before entering precip when it’s below freezing, and using the “maximum” setting at the first sign of ice.

Of course, the airplane is not approved for known-icing, so the TKS is just one tool to buy you time to change altitudes, turn around, find VMC, get to warmer air, or something else which will stop the accumulation.

The worse thing about ice is that it’s unpredictable. We don’t really understand why it occurs in some places and not in others, even when the conditions seem to be ripe for it in both places. It might be light icing for one pilot and severe for another one who flies through the same piece of sky only minutes later.

Pilots hate the unknown more than anything else. We strive for complete control over the flight, and that means being able to predict with certainty every critical aspect of our aircraft’s performance. Ice robs us of that capability. Our climb rates, airspeeds, handling, and other characteristics change. The airplane takes on a new personality, and the only thing you know for sure is that it won’t be as friendly as the one you’re used to.

Whoever said ice belongs in your drink and not on your airplane was right.

On the ground, though, all this rain has been a welcome sight after years of drought here in the Southland. Now, if you don’t mind, I think I hear a Gene Kelly song calling my name…