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A Beginners Guide to General Aviation Aircraft Identification

If you are the type of person who can visit an airport on any given day and accurately identify the make, model, year, and flight characteristics of any aircraft that you happen to see, this article is not for you. This article is for the good-hearted airplane enthusiast who is just starting out, or the student pilot who feels inadequate when their pilot friends rattle off airplane facts like nobody’s business.

I took a poll of my friends at school, asking them how confident they are in their airplane identification skills. The majority of sophomores and juniors said they were extremely confident, and could identify most military or civilian aircraft with ease. Some freshmen had grown up around aircraft, and felt mildly confident. However, I found a surprising amount of new student pilots who felt they would not know the difference between a Diamond and Cirrus, and referred to the majority of single-engine aircraft as simply "Cessna."

This article is designed to give an overview of the most common single-engine aircraft, and to give a new airplane enthusiast a good starting point for their upcoming years of impressing friends with their aviation knowledge. After all, even the most experienced plane-spotter had to start somewhere.

Stepping out onto a busy tarmac, one has a very high chance of seeing any combination of the following aircraft. The hope is that by the end of this list you will be able to easily pick out the subtle differences of each and take your first steps at being an airplane guru.

Cessna - The most popular single-engine general aviation aircraft has to be the Cessna 172. The four-seater aircraft has high wings, and the imaginary line from the bottom of the fuselage to the tail is almost perfectly straight. They are very angular and boxy, but have a classic look that is easily recognized. Cessna also has the 150, 152, 180, 182, and several other models, all of which have the same basic shape. Overall a very recognizable aircraft, and 80% of the time if there is a high winged aircraft on the ramp at the airport or flying around, it is a Cessna.

Diamond -The Diamond DA20 is a low-wing, curvy aircraft with a very large wingspan that could be mistaken for a powerful motor-glider. The fuselage is oval shaped, which flows into a skinny tail section and T-tail (position of vertical and horizontal stabilizers resemble an uppercase T) that makes me think of this aircraft as having a dolphin tail. The canopy opens upward, encasing the pilot and passenger in a bubble with great visibility. This aircraft also has four-seat model, the DA40.

Cirrus - Often confused with the Diamond DA40, a Cirrus SR20 is similarly shaped, but much less curvy and thin. The low-wing aircraft has a roomy interior, and features sporty doors that open upwards with a forward-pivoting hinge. The horizontal stabilizer is positioned similarly on the tail as a Cessna 172. These are not to be confused with a Cessna Columbia, which has a very similar shape but a perfectly straight nose gear.

Mooney - One of my favorite aircraft is the Mooney. These are easily identified by the vertical stabilizer, which appears to have been put on backward. It forms a sharp L-shape in the tail. This is also a low-wing aircraft, known for its speed. Another interesting feature is how the leading edge of the wing is perpendicular to the fuselage while the trailing edge is angled forward, giving it the appearance that the wings have been put on backward as well.

Piper Cherokee – Another popular training aircraft is the Piper Cherokee. They have chunky low-wings, and appear to sit closer to the ground. It seats four passengers and the majority of models have a fixed gear. This is the Cessna of low-wing aircraft. They are sometimes confused with the Beechcraft Bonanza, but are much smaller and less bulky looking.

Beechcraft Bonanza – A popular personal aircraft, this six-seat beast has been in continuous production longer than any other airplane in history. The oldest models have an easily recognizable V-shaped tail, but newer models sport a conventional tail, and all models have a trapezoidal gear leg fairing. They have a rather beefy fuselage, and occupy a lot of space.

I hope that this basic guide to identifying the most widely known and flown aircraft has been helpful. Next time you visit an airport, see how many of these legendary planes you can recognize. The more practice you have recognizing the different models, the better you will be.

Should We Keep 121.5 Alive?


Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0

Pilots are trained to use the radio frequency 121.5 in the event of an emergency. Emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) broadcast over 121.5 to notify search and rescue of a downed aircraft. FAA radio facilities, Civil Air Patrol, and often pilots monitor 121.5 as a way to receive distress signals. So why does the FCC, and subsequently the FAA and NTSB, want to ban something simple that could potentially save lives?

The answer lies in the advancement of modern technology – the increased use of the more accurate satellite-based 406 MHz ELT, and the decision of major search and rescue company COSPAS-SARSAT to cease monitoring 121.5 in 2009. But does the introduction of a more reliable system mean that everyone should be required to use it? And should we go so far as to ban the use of an emergency frequency so commonly known to help pilots?

Since 1973, the FAA has required almost all aircraft to have an emergency locator transmitter (ELT) on board. ELTs are small transmitters that emit a signal and provide a way for search and rescue (SAR) to locate a downed airplane, increasing the survival odds for a pilot and passengers. They can transmit on either 121. MHz or 406.025 MHz. It’s commonly known that the 406 MHz ELTs are much more accurate, but a good portion of the general aviation fleet still uses 121.5 MHz ELTs.

121.5 ELTs
Many ELTs commonly used in aviation are designed to transmit an analog signal over the frequency 121.5 when activated, allowing anyone that is monitoring the frequency to hear the distress signal and notify appropriate search and rescue teams. These 121.5 ELTs are inexpensive and simple to use, but they aren’t without their problems.

If an ELT is in the ‘armed’ mode, it will become activated during a crash and transmit a noisy alarm over the frequency 121.5. But sometimes a hard landing will set it off, or it can be accidentally activated during ground operations. More often than not, ELTs are activated in non-emergency situations, and ATC and operators spend a lot of time tracking down false ELT signals. In addition, finding the signal requires homing in to the strength of the signal – a difficult and inaccurate task when the signal accuracy is only limited to about 10 miles.

406 MHz
A 406 MHz ELT transmit a digital signal, which allows for a code to be transmitted along with the distress signal. This code has details about the aircraft, including its registration number and a point of contact.

406 MHz ELTs are more accurate, pinpointing the location of a downed aircraft to within one to three miles, decreasing the potential search area drastically from the of a 121.5 transmitter. And false alerts are less of a problem with 406 MHz ELTs, too, meaning authorities can act immediately upon receipt of a distress signal, instead of spending their time trying to determine if it’s a fake signal or not.

Why Ban 121.5?
It’s easy to see why the 406 MHz ELT is better. What’s less obvious is why we should ban the use of 121.5

The NTSB thinks that the use or 406 MHz ELTs should be mandated. In a 2007 Safety Recommendation letter, the NTSB described the downfall of 121.5 emergency locator transmitters and recommended that the FAA mandate the installation and use of 406 MHz transmitters in all aircraft before major search and rescue organizations COSPAS-SARSAT ceased its monitoring. They NTSB believes that without a mandate, pilots will refuse to upgrade to the 406 MHz units, making it more difficult on search and rescue and possibly creating undue risk.

The FAA agrees, but finds it more difficult to mandate. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has stood strong against the 121.5 ban, saying that it’s too costly for the approximately 200,000 general aviation pilots to upgrade, and that the decision regarding which ELT to use should rest with the pilots themselves.

In the meantime, the FCC is also considering a ban on 121.5 ELTs. In 2013, they opened up a comment period regarding the banning of 121.5 ELTs, and again AOPA opposed in this letter, stating that the FCC needs to leave aviation safety matters to the FAA. It remains to be known if the ban will come into play, but pilots should expect it to happen eventually, and more importantly, for their own safety, pilots should probably just upgrade to the 406 MHz ELT of they haven’t already.

Could - or should - the ban of 121.5 ELTs mean the death of the 121.5 frequency altogether? After all, the frequency is used for more than just ELTs. It’s an emergency frequency in which a pilot can declare an emergency, and it’s still monitiored by FAA facilities, Flight service stations and the civil air patrol. And many pilots still monitor it, which can be helpful to other pilots and ATC if they do hear something on that frequency. And pilots are taught to switch to 121.5 if they’re intercepted for some reason, such as inadvertent flight through a prohibited area.

What do you think? Should we just accept that new technology is better than the old and move on? Or should we fight to keep 121.5 alive?

EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2015 to Host Word-Record Skydiving Attempts During Afternoon Air Shows

Skydiving Hall of Fame to organize international teams of expert jumpers

Skydiver courtesy cristinasz @ Morguefile

Photo courtesy [email protected]

EAA AVIATION CENTER, OSHKOSH, Wisconsin - A world-record skydive attempt will be part of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2015, with an international team of top skydivers aiming to make history at The World’s Greatest Aviation Celebration. EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2015 is July 20-26 at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

The Skydiving Hall of Fame based in Fredericksburg, Virginia, will organize the 108-person jump team for the record attempts sanctioned by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), which is the official organization that maintains the world’s aviation-related records. The teams will practice and prepare with record attempts at Skydive Chicago in Ottawa, Illinois, before the scheduled record attempts on July 22 and 24 at Oshkosh (weather and conditions permitting).

"Skydivers have been part of the EAA AirVenture air show for decades, but the opportunity to have a world-record attempt at Oshkosh is something unprecedented here, and very exciting," said Rick Larsen, EAA’s vice president of communities and member programs, who leads the AirVenture event organizing team. "The Skydiving Hall of Fame is bringing the best of the best in their community to Oshkosh, matching the standard of performers that have made the AirVenture air show a true all-star event."

The Skydiving Hall of Fame team, known as the Eagles, will jump from as high as 20,000 feet from its Short SC.7 Skyvan and deHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otters to begin their record attempts. Any record would then be confirmed by FAI and its U.S. representative, the National Aeronautic Association (NAA).

"These seasoned skydivers, who are among the best in the world, face enormous challenges," said James F. (Curt) Curtis, president and CEO of the Skydiving Museum & Skydiving Hall of Fame. "To achieve an FAI world record while performing a high-profile professional exhibition requires extraordinary skill, talent and focus. But the opportunity to attempt this at Oshkosh during AirVenture week is a unique moment for our community."

About the Skydiving Museum & Skydiving Hall of Fame

The purpose of the Skydiving Museum is to recognize and promote the sport of skydiving through public education and awareness; recognize the contribution to skydiving by its participants, suppliers and supporters; capture forever the history of the sport via its events, equipment and personalities; and enhance aviation safety. Established by the Museum in 2010, the Skydiving Hall of Fame recognizes and honors those who, through leadership, innovations and/or outstanding achievements have defined, promoted, inspired and advanced skydiving at the highest and sustained levels in the past present, and for future generations of skydivers. More information on the museum and its programs is available at skydivingmuseum.org.

About EAA AirVenture Oshkosh

EAA AirVenture Oshkosh is "The World’s Greatest Aviation Celebration" and EAA’s yearly membership convention. Additional EAA AirVenture information, including advance ticket and camping purchase, is available online at www.airventure.org. EAA members receive lowest prices on admission rates. For more information on EAA and its programs, call 1-800-JOIN-EAA (1-800-564-6322) or visit www.eaa.org. Immediate news is available at www.twitter.com/EAAupdate.

What’s in Your Airplane Emergency Kit?

Have you ever looked at the contents of your aircraft survival kit? Have you thought about what might actually be useful in an emergency, and what just takes up space and adds weight?

Most pilots probably don’t give much thought to the contents of their survival kit. It’s there in the back of the airplane – we check during the preflight - and that’s good enough, right? Maybe, but if you're actually stuck in the wilderness after a plane crash, you might wish you'd have given it more thought.

Not all commercially packed survival kits are created equal. And while those that we buy from the store are convenient, chances are good that if you were to find yourself out in the woods, you might find that the contents of these ready-made kits are often cheap and sometimes useless when it comes to actually surviving. Some of them come with a lot of fluff that you don’t need (tongue depressors?) and also lack critical items that you’d clearly want, like a good knife.

Next time you’re stuck on the ground due to icy weather this winter, make good use of your down time by reviewing the contents of your survival kit. Make sure the contents haven’t expired. Change out the batteries in flashlights and check that the ELT is operational and is in compliance with the FARs. Update your kit for any changes in flying habits you’ve made, making sure you take into account the routes you fly most often, as well as the other passengers you might be flying around. Just like your smoke detectors in your house, your aircraft emergency kit should be evaluated often.

Your aircraft survival kit should be tailored to you and your flying needs. You might need to consider weight, including only the very critical elements. You might need to consider water survival gear if you frequently overfly lakes. And if you’re flying in the Alaskan wilderness, your needs will be different than they would be if your flights were within 30 miles of your home airport in the Midwest. Think about your personal needs when putting together your survival kit. Here are a few of the basics that you’ll need.

ELT/PLB
The ELT and PLB are so important that they get their own category here. In the case of a plane crash, your chances of being located increase drastically if you have a working ELT (emergency locator transmitter) and/or a PLB (personal locator beacon). If you’re still flying with an old ELT that transmit on 121.5 MHz, consider getting a 406 MHz ELT. They don’t have the false alarm problem that the 121.5 MHz ELTs are known for, and they increase your chances of being found by a significant amount.

The aircraft you’re flying likely has an ELT installed, but it doesn’t hurt to fly with a PLB, too, which comes in handy if you want to leave the area on foot to try to find help. (It’s usually best to stay with the wreckage after an aircraft accident, by the way, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the terrain and area.) PLBs can be activated manually, and transmit on both 121.5 MHz and 406 MHz frequencies. These days, you can get a really good PLB for a couple hundred dollars – a small price to pay for a chance at survival.

In addition to an ELT, you’ll want to have these items in your emergency kit:

Survival Gear

  • Emergency Blanket
  • Canopy
  • Flares (or, better yet, and emergency strobe)
  • Duct tape
  • Knife
  • Firesticks
  • Rope

Food and Water

  • Food rations and other high-calorie protein snacks
  • Water bottles
  • Water purification tablets
  • Fishing kit

Medical Supplies

  • Bandages (various sizes)
  • Tape
  • Aspirin
  • Scissors
  • Personal Medications

Have you discovered any must-have emergency supplies? Share them with us in the comments!

5 New Places to Fly in 2015

Looking for a new place to fly? Wondering where to spend your next vacation? Part of the joy of flying includes exploring new places while avoiding airlines and long road trips. Here are five stunning places that will remind you why you fly and double as fun vacation spots for the whole family. If you haven't been to these places, put them on your flying bucket list for 2015!

  1. First Flight Airport (KFFA), Kill Devil Hills, Outer Banks, NC
    First Flight Airport should be an airport in every aviator’s logbook. A flight to KFFA will let you experience flight as the Wright Brothers first did at Kitty Hawk in 1903. The airport itself is part of the Wright Brothers National Memorial. It’s home to the Wright Brothers Memorial, which rests high on Kill Devil Hill, the Wright Brothers Visitor’s Center, the Flight Line, where large stones commemorate the Wright Brothers’ takeoff points, and a reconstruction of their living quarters.

    But that’s not all. There are plenty of things to do in the Outer Banks, so plan on grabbing a hotel or beach house and staying on the beach for a few days. The area offers a wealth of activities like golfing, fishing and hang gliding. View some of the area lighthouses or just relax and take in the sights.

    Airport Information: KFFA has a 3,000-foot asphalt runway. There are no instrument approach procedures, and it can be windy. If you need a larger runway, you’ll find a 4,305-foot runway six miles south at Dare County Regional Airport (KMQI). Stay aware of the restricted areas, MOAs and other low-flying operations like hang gliding.

    Pilot Services: AOPA has donated a pilot’s lounge that is reportedly accessible at all hours, but there is no fuel available here, so plan ahead to stop elsewhere.

  2. Sedona Airport (KSEZ), Sedona, Arizona
    Red rock country offers spectacular views and a relaxing atmosphere for a vacation. Sedona airport sits atop a gorgeous plateau of red rock, and flying in is a treat - as long as you are prepared for the potential downdrafts associated with the sharp drop-offs on approach and landing.

    There’s a nice restaurant with panoramic views at the airport and it’s a quick trip to the downtown area, where shopping and tourist attractions are plenty. Take a jeep tour across the red rocks or visit the Chapel of the Holy Cross, which is built into the side of a canyon and is an impressive architectural sight.

    Airport Information: KSEZ has a 5,132-foot runway. Look up the noise abatement procedures before you go, and expect turbulence around the airport. There’s a GPS approach to Runway 3. Its elevation is 4,736 feet, so keep density altitude in mind.

    Pilot Services: Full pilot services are available at Red Rock Aviation. The airport restaurant, Mesa Grill Sedona, is fantastic.

  3. McCall Municipal Airport (KMYL), McCall, Idaho
    McCall is a great airport to visit year-round. If you’re looking for a great ski resort, check out Brundage Mountain Resort, which has 46 trails on 1500 acres. In the summer, the area around McCall offers amazing hiking, camping, fishing and river rafting opportunities. For a quiet, peaceful vacation away from it all, McCall is the place to be.

    Airport Information: McCall’s runway is 6,108 feet. It sits at 5,000+ feet, so keep density altitude in mind. The area gets a lot of snow in the winter, and KMYL is only attended during the day, so night approaches during the winter can be tricky. There are RNAV(GPS) approaches to either runway.

    Pilot Services: 100LL and JetA are available at McCall Aviation, along with a variety of additional pilot services. Hangar space, preheating and de-icing services are available.

  4. Nantucket Memorial Airport (KACK), Nantucket Island, MA
    Nantucket Island has it all: Beaches, whale watching, lighthouses, shopping and restaurants. From the airport, rent a car or a bicycle and explore the island. It’s a great place to take the family for a few relaxing days in the heat of the summer.

    Airport Information: KACK has three runways, with the longest being 6,303 feet. There are multiple approaches available, including an ILS on Runway 06/24. There are noise abatement procedures in place. It can get foggy here, so expects delays. And don’t forget that you may need floatation devices on board for this trip!

    Pilot Services: A full service FBO is located adjacent to the terminal. It’s recommended that large aircraft call ahead to make arrangements. Bring your own tie-down rope and look up the landing fees in advance.

  5. Mackinac Island Airport (KMCD), Mackinac Island, MI
    History buffs will love Mackinac Island. Pronounced "Mack-in-naw," the island separates the lower and upper peninsulas in northern Michigan, and is a great place for a day trip in the airplane. Cars are not allowed on the island, which keeps things peaceful. Hike, bike or take a horse-drawn carriage around the island and see historic sights, caves, springs, rock formations and wildlife. Check out Fort Mackinac, which was constructed by the British during the War of 1812.

    Airport Information: KMCD has a 3,501-foot lighted runway. There’s an RNAV(GPS) approach to runway 08/26 and a VOR/DME-A approach. No touch-and-goes are allowed here. If you need a longer runway, or are getting a hotel for a few days, try Pellston Regional Airport (KPLN), which has a 6,500-foot runway and more pilot services.

    Pilot Services: Call ahead for the landing fee. Tie downs are available, but no fuel or maintenance services are available. If you’re going for longer than a day, you’ll want to fly into KPLN for full pilot services.

Are you planning to fly somewhere new in 2015? Share your airport ideas with us in the comments!

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