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7 Reasons an Instrument Rating Will Make You a Better Pilot


Photo: N. Tackaberry/Flickr-CC BY-ND 2.0
Getting an instrument rating means you’ll be able to fly in the clouds and you won’t be stuck on the ground as much because of bad weather. But an IFR rating also comes with a few other advantages. Here’s why getting an instrument rating will make you a better pilot:

  1. You’ll become more accurate.
    There’s no doubt that accuracy improves with instrument flight. In order to remain safe while in the clouds, you have to stay on your altitude and heading. Deviations become much more of a safety hazard when you can’t see the ground below you or other aircraft flying around you. During your IFR training, you learn to fly more precisely, staying on your assigned altitude, heading and airspeed, or making exact pitch and power changes for, say, a precise 500 foot-per-minute climb. These skills will transfer over to your VFR flying, too.

  2. Your preflight planning will be better.
    Preflight planning is always important, but when you introduce low ceilings and fog into the equation, planning is done with a whole new outlook. IFR flight presents new challenges like icing hazards, holding procedures and traffic delays, and it’s more important than ever to be prepared for fuel stops, flight plan deviations and alternates.

  3. You’ll learn more about your airplane’s instruments and technology in general.
    In-depth familiarization with your aircraft’s instruments is one of the challenges of the IFR rating. You’ll not only need to know how these instruments work, but you’ll become familiar with what to do in case of instrument failure. The extra knowledge of autopilot systems and GPS technology will come in handy for flying in different environments, both VFR and IFR.

  4. You’ll always be ‘two steps ahead’.
    Any instrument student knows that part of IFR training is transforming your mindset from real-time flying to being at least two steps ahead of the airplane. Being ahead of the airplane is necessary for instrument flight, as there are numerous things going on and you’ll need to react quickly. Planning for the next two or three steps will become second-nature to you, and before you know it, you’ll be using this mental trick all the time – even for non-aviation tasks!

  5. You’ll be more prepared for inadvertent flight into IMC.
    Flying in the clouds is safe when it’s predictable, and when on an IFR flight plan. But there are times when you might find yourself in less-than-VFR conditions without intending to be, like at night, when the clouds roll in sooner than predicted, or if it’s tough to see the horizon in rain or hazy conditions. An instrument rating will greatly increase your chances of remaining in control of the aircraft should you encounter an inadvertent flight into IMC condition.

  6. You’ll be better at finding traffic in the area.
    As a VFR pilot unfamiliar with IFR operations, it’s difficult to know where exactly another aircraft is when the pilot reports “localizer inbound” or “on the 7 mile arc.” With an instrument rating, you’ll finally be aware of the exact locations of all of these other aircraft in the local area, improving your situational awareness and collision avoidance capabilities.

  7. You’ll become more skilled at noticing and predicting the weather.
    IFR training gives pilots a really thorough look at weather theory and weather reports. As you gain experience flying in IFR conditions, you’ll get much better at recognizing hazardous weather like icing, thunderstorm activity and frontal passages. This proves to be valuable knowledge to have during any flight, of course, and as a bonus you might also become the go-to guy for weather reports and forecasts among your family and friends.

Are You Prepared for Instrument Failure in IMC?


Photo: Wikimedia/Meggar

Autumn is in full swing, and the cooler nights tend to make morning fog a common occurrence in many places. While fog might not be a problem for you if you are IFR-rated and current, it’s nevertheless a good time to review your emergency procedures – like instrument failures and partial panel procedures.

A failure of any instrument in the cockpit of your airplane is difficult enough to deal with during a VFR flight, but the proper procedures after an instrument failure in IMC can mean the difference between life and death. While we tend to remain “current” by flying IFR flight plans and instrument approaches on a daily or weekly basis, unless you work for a company that requires it, you probably don’t practice instrument failures or partial panel procedures enough.

Are you ready for an instrument failure in instrument conditions? After training your eyes and brain to “trust your instruments,” can you immediately recognize instrument errors and reverse that deep-rooted feeling that your instruments must be correct?

Identifying instrument failures seems like an easy enough task – after all, if an instrument is behaving erratically, there’s a good chance it’s malfunctioning - but it’s difficult for our brains to determine exactly what’s happening at first glance when an instrument fails, and sometimes the failure occurs slowly, such as the slow icing over of a pitot tube. And that’s only the first part of the emergency. The second part is responding correctly. While in the clouds without correct instrument indications, knowing which way is up can be puzzling to even the most experienced pilots. Here’s a quick review about how instruments react to common types of failures in many light aircraft.

***This is not a substitute for instruction. Please consult your aircraft’s POH for emergency procedures specific to your airplane! ***

Pitot-Static System Failure:
A problem with the static system will appear on the airspeed indicator, altimeter or vertical speed indicator (VSI), or a combination of the three.

  • Blocked Pitot Tube: A pitot tube blocked with insects is a common culprit of erroneous airspeed indications. This type of blockage might be noticed during takeoff, when the airspeed doesn’t increase as usual. With a total pitot tube blockage, the airspeed will read ‘0’. But the pitot tube can also be blocked during flight with ice or heavy rain, and as ice accumulates slowly over the pitot tube, the airspeed indicator will show a slow decrease in airspeed, maybe not even noticeable at first.

    Since the pitot tube is used just for the airspeed indicator, a blocked pitot tube will not affect the altimeter or VSI.

  • Blocked Static Port: A blocked static port isn’t too much of a problem if the aircraft is equipped with an alternate static source (many are). But without alternate air, a blocked static source will cause the airspeed indicator to act as a reverse altimeter, showing an increase in airspeed during a descent and a decrease in airspeed during a climb.

    With a blocked static port, the altimeter will freeze, showing the last altitude recorded before the blockage occurred, and the VSI will indicate ‘0’.

  • Pitot and Static Blockage: If both the pitot tube and static system are blocked, the airspeed indicator will act like an altimeter, showing an increase in airspeed when climbing and a decrease in airspeed while descending.

Gyroscopic System Failure:
There’s a reason the vacuum gage is checked during the engine run-up. It’s because two of the three commonly used gyroscopic instruments run on a vacuum-driven pump, and if these instruments fail, flying can be pretty dangerous.

The gyroscopic instruments typically include the turn coordinator, heading indicator and attitude indicator. The heading indicator and attitude indicator are vacuum-drive most of the time, so a vacuum failure or loss of suction will cause the attitude and heading indicators to ne unreliable.

Many commonly used turn coordinators are electrically driven (done for redundancy and as a backup to the vacuum system), and will fail along with an electrical failure.

A pitot-static or gyroscopic failure can be difficult to diagnose and confirm at first. The trick is to think about a failed instrument on a systemic level by determining which, if any, other instruments are also affected. If your airspeed seems off, check your other instruments. If they are also indicating erroneously, than you can bet there’s a pitot and static failure. If only the airspeed is incorrect you can rest assured the pitot tube alone is the culprit. By cross-checking often and making sure all your instruments agree with each other, you’ll be able to determine which are malfunctioning and take appropriate action. What’s the appropriate action? Covering up the inaccurate instruments and converting to a new insrtument scan that will keep you alive and allow you to land safely.

In any case, the quick and proper diagnosis of an instrument or system failure will turn an emergency into an inconvenience (although you should always declare an emergency when the situation warrants). A good pilot is always prepared, and preparation in this case comes with consistent practice, so be sure to brush up on your partial panel procedures often!

5 Tips for Overcoming Radio Anxiety During Flight Training


A recent conversation with a friend reminded me that radio anxiety is one of the most-feared parts of flying for student pilots. But it doesn’t have to be. As flight instructors, we often forget what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by radio chatter in a busy airspace. We’ve been doing it for so long that it rolls right off our tongues with ease. But for a new pilot, this type of communication - lightning-speed transmissions between controllers and pilots, peppered with jargon and acronyms everywhere – is a like learning foreign language.

Communicating with air traffic control is a very common fear for student pilots. Controllers talk fast, and sometimes instructors put a lot of emphasis on doing it “right.” And there’s already so much going on while you’re flying that handling the radios seems like an impossible addition.

Obviously, the number one priority while flying is safety, and good pilot-controller communication is essential to the safety of flight, which is why it’s emphasized early on in flight training. You do need to learn how to do it right, but it doesn’t have to be a source of anxiety.

There are ways to overcome radio anxiety easily and after a few flights, you’ll be worrying about other important things, like were to go for your next $100 hamburger. Here are a few inside tips for getting rid of radio anxiety:

  1. Relax: You are going to mess up the radios at first, so just get comfortable with messing up. When you realize that messing up one or two words while talking to the control tower won’t mean the end of the world, you’ll be able to relax a little. Everyone messes up. As long as you get your message across somehow you’ll be just fine.
  2. Don’t get hung up on being perfect: Your instructor will likely tell you to remember certain things, like the “Three W’s” when you’re reporting your position in the pattern. In this case, you’re supposed to say who you are, where you are, and what you’re doing, which sounds easy until you’re multi-tasking while turning from base to final in the pattern. Remember that it doesn’t really matter if you forget one portion of the required radio call- you can always call again. Or, if you're in a towered environment, ATC will ask you for any missing information they might need and everyone will move one.
  3. Don’t worry about embarrassment: ATC deals with new and unfamiliar pilots a lot, and they’ll understand. As far as other pilots, they’re all too busy worried about what they’re going to say to even notice a bad radio call. Early on in your training, your instructor might suggest that you avoid ultra-busy airports until you’ve mastered the radios.
  4. Practice on the ground: Practicing your tower communications on the ground will do wonders for your flight. Grab a buddy and have him or her pretend to be ATC while you “fly” the pattern on the ground.
  5. Listen: Listening from the ground at or near the airport is the best way to learn ATC lingo, phrasing and terminology, including operations specific to your area or airport. Just grab a transceiver (your instructor or FBO might have one you can borrow) and head down to the airport. Sit at the FBO or on the ramp, grab a bite to eat and listen to the radio.

    You’ll hear a few things from the ground that will help with your own radio communications. First, you’ll get a good idea of local procedures and what goes on in general at the airport. Second, you’ll get an idea of the timing of radio calls, which is also important. Specifically, you’ll learn when air traffic controllers do hand-offs, when to contact them when you’re inbound to the airport and what to say upon departure. Finally, you’ll hear other pilots mess up radio calls, which will make you feel better about your own mistakes.

In the end, the best way to learn is by experience. You have to get your feet wet at some point, so don't be afraid to just jump in and do it. Your first few radio calls will probably be a bit rough, but it only takes a few flights to get the hang of it!

Managing Aviation Fuel Costs in a Changing Environment

As the cost of aviation fuel continues to rise, owners and operators of general aviation and business aircraft are faced with the unrelenting task of revamping their aviation fuel cost management initiatives - over and over again.

For aircraft owners, the rising prices are nothing new. On the contrary, it’s surely getting old. The ever-increasing operating costs associated with owning or renting an airplane affects businessmen and aviation enthusiasts alike. It affects owners, flight schools and FBOs. And it’s a problem that doesn’t seem to want to go away.

What do you do to keep fuel costs down? What can you do? For many, it seems like the options have been exhausted. Maybe you’ve invested in the most efficient aircraft for your type of operation: Maybe you’ve condensed multiple business trips into a single trip and longer days to save on jet fuel. Maybe you’ve even downsized the fleet.

Below are a few basic tips for saving money on aviation fuel. Perhaps you’ve implemented some or all of them already; maybe not.

According to the National Business Aircraft Association, a survey from an aviation consulting group found that 98% of aircraft owners and operators said fuel cost was a concern, and they responded with a variety of actions: Requesting more direct routes, tankering fuel, flying slower, or flying less often. And seventy-six percent said they had switched FBOs for lower-priced fuel elsewhere. Here are a few other ways to save money on fuel:

Slow Down: Conserving fuel by flying slower can be a good option for those who can allow a little bit of extra time in their travel plans, according to aviation consultant website Conklin & de Decker. “In a business jet, fuel is half to two-thirds of your variable cost. While the whole purpose of the aircraft is to save time, a bit slower speed and careful trip planning can keep your costs down. Reducing aircraft weight and drag can save on aircraft fuel, as well. Keeping the aircraft clean, using minimal takeoff flaps and installing winglets can all help decrease drag and improve efficiency.

Get Equipped for NextGen: The whole purpose of the FAA’s NextGen program is to increase efficiency throughout the air traffic system. Pilots and operators can take advantage of more direct routing by equipping their aircraft for NextGen. Depending on the aircraft and avionics already installed (or not installed) this can be a significant investment, but should save money in the long run.

Fuel Tankering: Some operators have experimented with fuel tinkering, which means buying fuel for cheap (such as at a home airport) and bringing it with you on board the aircraft to avoid high-cost fuel elsewhere. This only works if the added weight to the aircraft doesn’t decrease efficiency to the point where more fuel is used in flight than is saved by tankering, according to Conklin & de Decker.

Fuel Card Discount programs: Obviously shopping around for the best fuel discount program is an easy way to save cash – as long as you aren’t flying out of your way too much to get to an FBO that takes your card. These days, it’s not usually a problem.

Flight Planning: Perhaps the most easily controlled fuel-savings option is careful flight planning. By using resources like Max-Trax, which helps pilots search for the lowest-priced fuel along a route of flight or within a certain radius of an airport, users can easily identify the most efficient fuels stops, including airport and FBO information associated with that particular fuel stop. Over time, the fuel savings from this approach will add up.

As any pilot or operator knows, minimizing fuel costs is a weekly, monthly and yearly struggle. There are a variety of ways for aircraft owners and operators to be efficient, but the fuel industry an unpredictable and fluid one that constantly keeps us on our toes!

Do you have any cost-saving tips or tricks to share with other aircraft owners? Share them with us in the comments section below!

 

General Aviation's Avgas Problem: Low Lead to No Lead?

The general aviation industry is searching for an alternative for 100 low lead avgas (100LL). But it is really necessary?

By now we all know that human exposure to lead is unhealthy – most commonly, exposure to lead causes neurological problems in children and cardiovascular problems in adults. We’ve probably all made sure that our walls weren’t once painted with leaded paint and our lead pipes aren’t corroding and contaminating our drinking water. But have you considered that general aviation aircraft operations are the main source of lead pollution today? Those who work in and around small piston aircraft might be exposed to harmful lead pollution – and the EPA and FAA are ready to do something about it.

“Emissions of lead from piston-engine aircraft using leaded avgas comprise approximately half of the national inventory of lead emitted to air,” claims the EPA. The organization estimates that about 41,000 tons of lead from avgas was emitted between 1970 and 2007. And, According to an EPA factsheet, the concentration of lead in the air increases near general aviation airports due to the use of 100LL fuel.

But our air quality is fine, right? And people have been using 100LL for years without adverse health affects…right? This might be true, but general aviation’s lead problem, while seemingly minor, is not a small problem at all.

Lead emitted from general aviation flight operations not only pollutes the air in and around airports, but it’s capable of traveling great distances before accumulating on the ground and in ground water. And, because there is no level of lead that is said to be safe when it comes to human exposure, the EPA and other environmental groups are pushing for the aviation community to adopt a lead-free fuel.

While many in the industry agree that it’s time to make the switch to an alternative fuel, others aren’t quite sure it’ll be worth the price. To the author’s knowledge, there have been no studies regarding the amount of lead in humans that work or live around general aviation airports, nor has there been any actual emissions testing on aircraft that operate with 100LL fuel. The EPA and other organizations have assumed that the hazard exists based on the amount of lead in avgas, and the fact that avgas is the only leaded fuel out there, leaving some people wondering if the problem even exists at all.

Regardless of the lack of information, the FAA has declared its agreement with the EPA and is taking steps toward a lead-free future, noting that general aviation aircraft are the only type of fuel-burning transportation that still uses leaded fuel.

In July 2014, the FAA received nine proposals for alternative fuels that would replace 100LL avgas, including proposals from Afton Chemical Company, Avgas LLC, Shell, Swift Fuels, BP, TOTAL, and Hjelmco. For the next few years, the FAA will be testing and evaluating these fuels during a two-phase, six million dollar per year program called the Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative (PAFI). They hope to have a solution that satisfies the entire general aviation fleet of 100LL users by December 2018.

As an aircraft owner, you might not be worried about air quality around airports or exposure to lead through your own piston aircraft use. But the transition to lead-free fuel is happening, and the bigger problem here is that an alternative fuel will affect all 100LL users in the not-so-distant future. Before long, aircraft owners could be faced with buying a new engine or at the very least, a certification process for a new fuel type. While the FAA hopes to find a fuel that will keep all aircraft flying, there is bound to be a cost associated with keeping 100LL aircraft in the air in the post-100LL days. And if you thought today’s avgas is expensive, a new type will probably cost even more.

Diesel might be the way to go, after all.

What are your thoughts? Is the creation of a lead-free fuel a necessary step into the future for GA, or have environmentalist organizations created a problem that doesn’t really exist? Comment and let us know!