A Ball of Blue

The United Kingdom’s air traffic control entity, NATS, recently published the third in a series of computer-generated videos depicting a typical day’s traffic in the skies controlled by the National Air Traffic Service.

The first two, Europe 24 and North Atlantic Skies, were impressive enough. But this one, which focuses on air traffic over the British Isles, is of particular interest because I’ve flow in and out of the London area on many occasions. I can imagine myself as one of those tiny dots (“which one am I”?), zipping around the skies of southern England like a 35-ton firefly or launching westward toward America in the manner of a sleek metal bullet being fired across a placid lake.

This clip, entitled “UK 24″, is also worth watching because it breaks down the traffic by type: military, commercial, helicopter, light GA, and so on. After watching the video a few times, I was struck by the paltry ratio of general aviation to airline activity — the polar opposite of what we’ve traditionally seen in the States. Perhaps that’s because the airplanes operating without ATC services are not modeled in this video. Either way, it’s a sad (and unintended, I’m sure) commentary on the state of grass roots general aviation in Europe.

I wonder if the FAA provides a similar visualization of flights over the continental U.S. It would certainly be an interesting comparison. I imagine it would make a dramatic statement about the size and scope of traffic in the national airspace system. NATS controls an average of 6,000 flights per day in U.K. airspace. According to the FAA’s Air Traffic Activity System, the U.S. sees ten times as many flights over the same period. And that doesn’t include non-participating VFR targets which, unlike our British cousins, outnumber IFR operations by several orders of magnitude.

A visualization of all American air traffic would probably be so overwhelming that portions of the map near major metropolitan areas would be nothing but a vibrant ball of blue. Here’s hoping it stays that way.

The Red Rocket

Questair Venture

I suppose every pilot has a catalog of “dream aircraft” they’d like to fly before their gravity-defying days are over. My bucket list includes a quirky looking homebuilt called the Questair Venture.

The Venture conjures up a unique set of images: blistering speed, eggs, air racing, and more than a crash or two. Many folks deride the airplane for it’s unusual fuselage shape. I’ll grant that she’s undoubtedly unique, but I happen to love the compact, curving visage of this zippy little ship.

Designed in the 1980s for maximum speed and efficiency, the Questair’s carefully crafted dimensions resulted in the one of the lowest drag GA airframes ever created. That’s what allowed it to win races at Reno, set time-to-climb records in the 3,000, 6,000, and 9,000 meter categories which were unassailed for nearly a decade, and achieve a high-altitude record of more than 35,000 feet. And lest we forget, it set those records without a turbocharger.

I have yet to fly a Venture — fewer than seventy were built — but as I said, it’s on my list of dream airplanes. Who wouldn’t enjoy a turbojet-like 3,000 fpm climb rate and 300 mph cruise speed on a miserly 13 gph?

The Venture is on my mind right now because a beautiful example of the breed graces the March cover of Sport Aviation magazine. Painted in a pure, vibrant red from tip to tail, this particular airplane started life as a fixed-gear version (which just seems wrong!) called the Spirit. It was purchased by Jerry Mercer and completed with retractable landing gear and a few other noteworthy mods. It’s poetry in motion, the sort of aircraft that can’t be done justice with words — or even photos — on a page.

And that’s why I was moved to write about it when I discovered this high-definition video of Mercer’s Venture sailing over the Malibu coastline. I’ve worked with the videographer, Jessica Ambats, on an air-to-air shoot before and she’s one of the best. When you combine her artistry, an impeccably-built red rocket ship, and the picturesque scenery of the southern California coastline, this is the result:



Perhaps it’s just my background in theatre and music talking, but wouldn’t you agree that one of the most compelling aspects of aviation is the opportunity for artistic expression through one’s flying? I’ll be the first to admit it’s a romantic notion, straight out of the swashbuckling, barnstorming 1930’s, scarf and all. But so what?

Whether it’s perfectly coordinated operation of the aircraft, maximum efficiency during a flight, a smooth centerline “kiss” of the runway with the tires, or barrel roll so flawless that it appears the earth is rotating around a stationary aircraft, there’s a higher level of consciousness — a zen, if you will — to be realized in achieving it.

There are other ways to express one’s artistic side, of course. One such example is this video by Brent Owens, who mounted a video camera under the perfectly polished wing of his RV-8.

The resultant video reminds me of the opening scene from L.A. Opera’s Das Rheingold. The three maidens were suspended above the stage while supernumeraries in identical costumes were positioned upside down underneath them to represent a reflection in the waters of the Rhine. In the same way, scenery underneath Brent’s airplane is bounced off the lower wing like a film noir sequence beaming onto a screen at a timeworn drive-in theater.

I love it.

The likeness of three Rhine maidens are "reflected" by actors mimicking their movements from below.

The likeness of three Rhine maidens are “reflected” by actors mimicking their movements from below.

Artistic flying can take many forms. For me, it’s best represented by precision and accuracy when I’m behind the controls. For others… well, they take the road less traveled. Sometimes it gets downright wacky! For example, an Dutch artist whose cat was run over by a car decided to convert the feline corpus into a remote-controlled helicopter.

Yes, you read that right. It’s got to be a bit morbid to see the permanent wide-eyed expression of a former companion perpetually staring back at you, but it’s certainly a one-of-a-kind tribute to a beloved pet and avocation.

This guy takes the combination of art and flying to a whole new level!

This guy takes the combination of art and flying to a whole new level!

Kristi and I have two cats, but I’ll refrain from any suggestion of furball formation flying…

“Am I Nervous?”: An Aerobatic First Solo


One can’t help but feel a bit like a proud papa watching a student make his or her first solo flight. The feeling never gets old. It’s akin to teaching your kid to ride a bicycle: one moment you’re there along side them, and the next you’re not. No encouraging voice, nobody to make sure Bad Stuff doesn’t happen. It’s all on them. An exhilarating moment for both parties, but while one is out having fun, the other is left behind, ground-bound and hoping he did everything right.

The main difference is that crashing is a wee bit more expensive in an aircraft than on a bike. Or rather, that used to be a difference. Today, some airplanes are getting less expensive (twins, LSAs and homebuilts, I’m looking at you) while the price of a high-quality bicycle seems to reach ever more frequently into five figure territory. I wonder what Wilbur and Orville would have thought about such a thing.

When you’re signing off an acro pilot, there’s a lot more to worry about than with your typical single-engine GA aircraft. To start with, they’re not heading out to do a bunch of straight-and-level flying. Aerobatics is by definition a more full exploration of the aircraft’s performance envelope. They’re going to be operating with high angles of attack, extreme and (for most people) unusual attitudes, full control deflections, spinning, and zipping around the sky with several times the Earth’s normal gravitational force.

The airplane itself has a landing gear configuration so unstable that, for the most part, they don’t make it anymore. Simple objects like loose keys, coins or pens aren’t much of a hazard to most pilots, whereas in an aerobatic airplane they can fly around the cockpit, jam the controls, and make your life generally unpleasant. Don’t ask how I know that. The same goes with seat belts and cushions, which can get wrapped around or block the second set of controls. For extra fun, those controls are behind you and totally inaccessible in flight.

By the time they solo, the student has recovered from a plethora of botched aerobatic figures. They’ve fallen out of loops, rolled their way out of nose-low attitudes, and fixed inadvertent spin entries. But there’s no way to experience every possible combination of botched control inputs or emergencies. What if this, what if that. The possibilities are endless.

A few weeks ago I had seven or eight upper cowl fasteners fail all at once on one of these airplanes, and the high pressure inside the cowling (which is designed for engine cooling) left a big hole where the cowl should be tightly attached to the airframe. Instead of looking over the cowl, we could look through it. Who’s ever rehearsed that one?

Anyway, recently the first-solo honor went to a tailwheel and primary aerobatic program graduate from Sunrise Aviation with whom I worked. Graeme is about as dedicated as they come, because he lives and works south of San Diego. Any further south, in fact, and he’d be in Mexico. There should be some sort of award for braving that much traffic, especially since we’d get into the airplane and travel right back in the direction he just came from!

As is becoming the norm among the up-and-coming generation of whippersnappers, Graeme worked triple duty as Pilot-in-Command, videographer, and narrator on his first solo, later editing the raw footage into what you’ll see below.

Didactic benefits of videotaping training flights aside, how fantastic is it to have high-definition footage of stuff like this? Decades from now he’ll be able to re-live the experience in all its glory. When I was in his shoes, the best we had was a Polaroid Instamatic camera.

I got a good laugh out of his opening comment: “Am I nervous? No. Terrified.” I know exactly how you feel, my friend!

Big Brother is Watching

The two most dangerous words in aviation:  "Watch this!"

“Hey, I’m not paranoid. But everyone is out to get me…”

In the 21st century, nary a day goes by that a security camera, paparazzo, web cam, smartphone photo, Twitter post, or e-mail doesn’t undo a celebrity, politician, or executive somewhere. An entire industry of magazines and low-budget television shows (TMZ, anyone?) testifies to the fact: we are always being watched.

Did you stop by the bank or eat at a restaurant today? Smile — you’re on candid camera! Driving in your car? Cameras abound on highways and streets. Law enforcement vehicles have them built-in. If you used a credit card, proximity key card, or access badge, your location has been logged. At work and at home, computer and/or phone usage leaves a trace, too.

Speaking of phones, we tend to forget that our phones connect to cellular networks periodically whenever they’re powered up, whether we’re actively using them or not. The cell towers they connect to are an indicator of one’s location — evidence that has been used in court. Even refrigerators are digital these days. The one my wife and I have keeps track of when the door is opened so that it can run the freezer’s defrost cycle at the appropriate intervals.

"What's it doing now??"

“What’s it doing now??”

Do you ever think about these things? I do. Not because I have anything to hide, but because I simply don’t like being monitored, especially if I’m not sure who’s doing the watching or what nefarious schemes they might be able to hatch with the collected data. The bottom line here is that in many respects, privacy seems to be a thing of the past. It’s part of the price we pay for technology and convenience, and it’s one of the darker sides to the digital age.

It shouldn’t require the presence of a camera to keep an aviator from experimenting with Stupid Pilot Tricks. But let’s face it, knowing we’re “under glass” may help keep those of us with Type-A personalities on the straight-and-narrow when we’re tempted to do something that is, shall we say “on the margins” of acceptable behavior. Perhaps it’s flying a bit too low, busting weather minimums, rolling a non-aerobatic aircraft, or just a low approach with a slightly aggressive climbout at the other end.

Alas, in some cases the presence of a camera seems to have the opposite effect, actually encouraging behavior that is beyond the pale. I’ve noted quite a few examples of that in the past. You can find hundreds more on YouTube.

The latest example, a low pass by a Pitts biplane that appears to come within inches of persons on the ground, has been picked up by the national media.

From CNN:

The pilot, identified as Jason Newburg, previously had an FAA waiver to do aerobatics at the airport, but the waiver expired in November, an FAA source — who requested anonymity because of the ongoing investigation — told CNN.

FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said Thursday the agency is investigating the incident.

“Even with a valid waiver, there is a requirement that people on the ground not be endangered,” he said.

The irony here is that Mr. Newburg is a fairly well established airshow performer. Unlike recreational and competitive aerobatics, airshow pilots (especially those with a surface waiver) can do pretty much anything they darn well please with only one exception: they can’t put people on the ground at risk. Typically that’s interpreted as keeping the aircraft’s energy directed away from the crowd. It will be interesting to see how the FAA proceeds with their investigation. If the individuals who were so close to the fly-by are part of the airshow performer’s “team”, would this constitute a violation?

The FAA’s army of inspectors and attorneys makes and interprets these rules, so only they know the answer. Regardless of which way it goes, it was clearly unwise to have a video of that sort posted on the internet because the average Joe (including the media) doesn’t understand the FAA’s national airshow program. Even if all the paperwork was in order and it was legal by the letter of Advisory Circular 91-45, FAA Order 8900.1, and FAA Form 8710-7, those things are meaningless gibberish to the general public. All they see is something that looks dangerous. It spread across the internet and onto cable channels faster than… well, than a Pitts doing a 200 mph fly-by.

Think you’d never fall victim to the temptation to do something stupid while being recorded? Don’t be so sure. This kind of thing isn’t limited to intentional stunts. In an era of glass panels, portable GPS receivers, tablets, and smartphones, it’s worth remembering that if you’re got a computerized device in your aircraft, everything you do is being recorded. Your flight path, attitude information, altitude, position, acceleration, and many other parameters might be stored on silicon.

Even something as simple as a graphic engine monitor will be creating log files with your power settings, fuel flows, engine temperatures and pressures, and more. They’re fantastic tools for diagnosing engine issues, but the fact that they record data can come back to haunt you if a warranty claim is required or if the FAA or aircraft owner suspect improper operation.

Simple aircraft are not exempt. If you’re flying a rag wing Cub, the presence of an ordinary transponder means you’re position is being monitored and recorded onto tape by the FAA. You might think a 1200 code will protect you from identification, but as long as the device is transmitting, it’s also sending out a Mode S code that’s been assigned to that radio.

Upon interrogation, Mode S transponders transmit information about the aircraft to the Secondary Surveillance Radar (SSR) system, TCAS receivers on board aircraft and to the ADS-B SSR system. This information includes the call sign of the aircraft and/or the transponder’s permanent ICAO 24-bit address in the form of a hex code.

Even if you don’t have a single piece of electronic equipment in your aircraft, you’re still flying a loud vehicle that attracts attention from those on the ground. Think about that. Big Brother isn’t always electronic. Sometimes he’s a flesh-and-blood human witness. Ironically, they can be far worse than electronic evidence because unlike computers, people can take proactive action against pilots they perceive to be doing something wrong. A Garmin G1000 isn’t going to call the FAA on you. At least, not yet. But a human?

So don’t forget, my friends: it may not be 1984 anymore, but it’s still 1984. Whatever form he may take, Big Brother is always watching.