Solo: The Abandoned Column

The east side of the Sierras is in some ways more rugged and beautiful than the west

To the uninitiated it’s just another cheaply-bound ledger, unremarkable, a bookkeeping tool no different than those ones dumped haphazardly into the dollar bin at every generic office supply store in the world. It wouldn’t attract a second look.

But to a pilot? No matter how dog-eared and scuffed it may get, an aviator’s logbook is invariably one of his or her most prized possessions, the decimal-based journal of a life lived in the clouds. I love logbooks. The weighty, aging pages, the archival scent of a long-stored document, every little stain on the parchment. Even the way a pilot scribbles on the paper, the penmanship, contributing flavor to the tale. For those with an imagination, it can whisk you away to adventures in the sky just as surely as any air craft.

Who wouldn’t kill for a peek into the most immediate and personal flying notations of Chuck Yeager, Jimmy Doolittle, Bob Hoover, or Scott Crossfield? More than the chronicle of a pilot’s career, they document the history of aviation itself.

One wonders what will become of these relics when decimal is overwhelmed by binary. Like an aviation Guttenburg Bible, physical logbooks are already becoming a rare commodity, their raw data now residing, in truly ironic/hipster fashion, within the “Cloud”. No random pen marks generated out of excitement from that incredible flight, no fading from exposure to the sun, no aging whatsoever. Just perfect, uninspiring, character-free characters.

A pilot logbook from the first World War, circa 1917.  Even the handwriting tells a story.

A pilot logbook from the first World War, circa 1917. Even the handwriting tells a story.

I’ve got an electronic logbook. Oh so convenient for the incessant flood of insurance renewal requests and time-in-type queries posited to a professional who flits from this airplane to that one. The ease of transmittal, the freedom from data loss! It’s neat, expedient, a mathematically flawless miracle. A pilot like myself, raised on computers, one who takes to them with the greatest of ease in the cockpit, ought to love it.

I don’t.

That’s why I keep one on paper as well. And though it displays few of the characteristics that make great logbooks worth venerating, it has the unique virtue of being mine. Every page brings back a memory: a bumpy day under the LAX localizer keeping the world safe for democracy from the Medfly, success in the aerobatic box, or an open-door sunset flight down the California coastline with my wife in an 80-year-old friend.

Yet in this venerated document, there exists one quirky column which lacks appreciation and respect even among pilots: the one marked “solo”. Every logbook on the market has a space for this data, yet virtually no one uses it. Reserved exclusively for flights when no other person is aboard the aircraft, a tally of solo flying hours is not legally required for anything beyond primary training. Once the requisite solo hours are achieved, no other pilot, employer, insurance agent, FAA inspector, NTSB investigator, friend or foe will ever inquire about it again. It might as well not even exist. “How much solo time have you got?” It sounds preposterous to even say it.

But I’ve kept track of my solo time since day one. Flying alone is magical, in many ways the purest form of aviating. Every pilot gets that feeling the moment their sensai departs the aircraft for the very first time, but I love it for the same reason I enjoy scuba diving: you’re in your own world, ensconced in a place where no one can bother you. There’s nobody to teach, soothe, impress, or transport. No questions to answer, no one to be responsible for. Toss in VFR and you’re a cowboy riding that trusty steed off into the sunset like the pioneers of old. Want to go somewhere? Then go! Your destiny is open, no limits beyond a little airspace and the occasional need to refuel.

Sixteen years on in my flying career and it’s still like that every time I’m alone in an aircraft. Flying the Gulfstream is always a two-pilot affair, so I relish every available opportunity to go aloft on my own. It’s one of the reasons having an airplane is important to me: I can take wing whenever I want. As they saying goes, it’s cheaper than a therapist (although to be honest, whoever said that probably never added up the total cost of ownership).

Last week I was asked to ferry an Extra 300L from Reno/Stead to John Wayne Airport for the new owner. Solo flying?  I’m in!  I had airlined up to the Biggest Little City in the World the previous day and was racing a cold front off the California coast which was forecast to bring rain and snow to the Sierras in the afternoon.

An interesting side story: knowing the weather was going to turn, I’d booked a ticket to come up the previous morning and fly the airplane back that same day. The skies were forecast to be clear. Unfortunately, that 6:30 a.m. departure turned out to be a 6:30 p.m. ticket, and booking through a third-party travel site leaves you with few options for fixing these sorts of errors.  Thanks for nothing, Orbitz…

Note how the routing from RTS to SNA passes east of the Sierra Nevada range

Note how the routing from RTS to SNA passes east of the Sierra Nevada range

With weather blowing in from the west, the low-altitude route through California’s Central Valley wasn’t going to be available the next day, so this trip was what we call a Sierra Special: down the high terrain east of the Sierras and through the Owens Valley. The scenery is beautiful, but this area demands respect. More that one pilot has entered the valley and not left it one piece. Owens is one of those places that reminds you Mother Nature can overpower any man-made conveyance, even one with the incredible strength of an Extra.

Upon arriving at Stead, I learned that the aircraft’s oil pan had been replaced recently, but since the plane had been sold, it hadn’t been test flown. Liability, you know.  Well there was no way I’d take a single-engine airplane over some of the country’s most rugged terrain without a thorough test flight and leak check, so what better excuse for a few high powered laps around the patch?  Stead is home to the world-famous Reno Air Races.  The field was deserted this weekday morning, but I imagined the Unlimited warbirds zooming around the pylons at 500 mph.  I can see how it could become addictive.

By the time a local mechanic pronounced the Extra leak-free it was eleven o’clock and the winds were already kicking up, so I topped off the fuel, carefully secured my miniscule travel bag and a second parachute in the front seat, and blasted off for a solo adventure.

The Extra is as beautiful as it is capable.  The wing is completely smooth.

The Extra is as beautiful as it is capable. The wing is completely smooth.

And what an escapade it was!  The airplane was flawless, but weather threw a few curves my way.  Turbulence? Oh yeah. Plenty of that. The G-meter hit +4.5, and that wasn’t from aerobatics. It was cold, too — about -11 degrees Celsius at 11,500 feet, from which altitude I was still looking up at the mountains. I couldn’t have been more than 30 minutes out of Stead when it became clear my haute couture was inadequate for the frigid temperatures.  Not enough to present a serious safety-of-flight issue, but certainly uncomfortable.

I kept looking for opportunities to fly lower, but much of the journey was marked by significant up- and downdrafts, ones even the Extra couldn’t outclimb. Cold or not, the smart choice is to fly high. Just past Mt. Whitney, the wind flowing over the mountains pushed me down to 7,000 feet MSL (3,000 AGL) while bumping the plane around so much that I whacked my noggin on the canopy several times.  When an Extra 300 pilot feels compelled to slow the aircraft to maneuvering speed, you know the turbulence is bad.

Nevertheless, the trip was fun. Those 360 degree views of the snow-capped Sierras inspired a few barrel rolls once I was south of Bishop and clear of V381, and the weather providing several opportunities for crosswind landings and a bit of reasonable scud-running (2,000′) through an L.A. basin covered with thick stratus.  The adventure was another worthy memory for my paper logbook, and one I took particular pleasure in adding to the “solo” column.

Here are a few photos from the trip:

Aviation Myths, Part 1

faa_charts

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]