On Gratitude and Flying

On the recent Airplane Geeks episodes there have been some excellent stories of getting started in flying. I appreciated Rob Mark’s comments on his finding a flight instrutor that helped engage his passion for flying in the Bits and Pieces IX. The episode with Stephen Tupper included discussion on the CAP program that educates thousands of young people about aviation.

David’s note on Congratualations, Thanks and Encouragement from Episode 230 inspired my own desire to spread a little gratitude. Like David’s daughter getting a scholarship from the Soaring Society of America I started my career as a glider pilot courtesy of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets.

I couldn’t tell you when I started thinking about airplanes. As far back as I can think I had the desire to fly. In elementary school there would be a assignment to go out and draw something we saw and I’d look up and see a contrail and produce a detailed side on view of a DC–8 in the appropriate airline livery.

Canada along with other common wealth countries like Austrailia and the UK, have the legacy of the wartime cadet program. No longer with the same focus of preparing for military service, they remain one of the largest youth programs in the country. Every year hundreds of cadets get their wings and the dream of flying is realized. There’s even a facebook group called Cadets Made Me a Pilot

Well about 30 years ago they made me a pilot. While I never made a career out of it, it would take a major calamity in my life to ever give it up. I owe that and a large amount of gratetude to all those that helped me get that set of wings. When times would get hard, I would push myself to remember the fundementally cool things about being me and being a pilot is what I would always think of.

In the Right Stuff, they spoke of being ‘on top of the pyramid’ well if that still is a thing there is a ex-Air Cadet named Chris Hadfield orbiting the earth in command of the International Space Station. That is very, very cool. Cadets made him a pilot too, although you got to figure he probably would have got there anyway. For many of us Cadets or other avaiation scholarships were probably our only shot.

I’m grateful for the work that organizations like AOPA and COPA do to make flying accessable to people. And help break the sterotype that those of us that fly are some idle rich that can afford triffling pastimes. To many it is also a career but not always a glamorous a one as many make out.

As podcasts like the Airplane Geeks and Airspeed show, Whehter you have the piece of paper or not, Flying is a passion, an avocation, something to be embraced and enjoyed.

Thanks.

Scarcity and Passion

While discussing some recent training I did in my day job, I was asked whether teaching was my first love. I probably should have thought about it for a least a second but I didn’t.. I said “No, Flying is my first love”

It is not like I pine for a career flying the line, like Captain Dave , or the ups and downs of regional flying like the Aviatrix, or even cranking and banking in a CF–18 like some of the guys I see at airshows. Although, every once and a while I think that last one might be REALLY cool.

I like being a network geek and teaching was a good job too.

But flying is a passion, to the point I would not really want to make it a job. The thought that I can – with a few dollars – push an airplane around the sky when the immediate annoyance I am dealing with is over, is probably the best feeling in the world.

I can sit and code PERL on my computer but the buzz from the ATC chatter of Live ATC in the background gives me energy. I can walk to work or pull on the rowing machine at the gym but I have The Airplane Geeks or Plane Crazy Down Under on my earbuds. When my niece and nephew send me birthday pictures, they inevitably include an airplane.

I celebrated a birthday recently, which was nice, but next summer I will celebrate 30 years as the holder of an aviation license.

I’m strongly considering a trip back to the place where I got my first set of wings in 1982. To stand on the ramp. To look at a little bit of sky.

It would be great if your job could deliver all the passion you need. But hobbies, avocations, and those bits of true passion you have are frequently found in much smaller doses. Nothing particularly wrong with that, maybe they are truly better served with a bit of scarcity.

Aviation Geek Fest 2012

On Sunday, Feburary 19 I attended the Aviation Geek Fest at the Future of Flight. This was the third version of the event but I only found out about it this year. Organized by David Parker Brown from [http://www.airlinereporter.com/] along with the good folks from the Future of Flight and Boeing. Also in attendance were social media folks from Boeing, United Airlines, and Southwest.

As an avid listener to podcasts like The Airplane Geeks I have no problem being considered a geek. I’m a computer geek, a camera geek, and an airplane geek. I think the test of being a geek is whether you need to ask youself “Am I a little weird”, because most of us are, at least a little weird.

Computer is to iPad as Airplane is to [blank]

So I’m getting to be a little bit of an apple iPad fanboy apparently I’m not alone [The iPad Launch: Can Steve Jobs Do It Again? By Stephen Fry] But the OS holy wars appear to have begun as the haters and doubters raise some collumn inches and their hit count. If you want some of the counter examples of ‘Apple Fanboys’ please see:

I’m passing on the “is it evil” discussion in favor of my personal use case.

I recently tried a Sony eReader and found it a little wanting. I’ve got a number of PDF reference files I would like to have with me and want to access either while I am doing something else on my laptop or without pulling out my laptop. These PDFs are from two areas the Technical Documentation for my programming and network management work and the Aviation Documents for my use as a recreational pilot.

I found Sony (and other readers) not great for PDFs that are formatted for printer output. Specifically the large margins and whitespace caused you to constantly zoom in and out. It is especially annoying trying to replace my flying documentation with an electronic source. As a recreational pilot I only fly every few weeks yet I must subscribe to a range of publications that drop 5 pounds of paper on my doorstep every 56 days.

The current technology solutions for Electronic flight bags are aimed at corporate or airline systems with $5,000 hardware and $1000/yr in ongoing costs. Even the current crop of the General Aviation GPS tools are in the $2000+ range. With the advent of Foreflight and similar applications for the iPhone and the space of a iPad I can have a sub-$1000 solution with a sub $100/yr ongoing cost.

Now my iPad won’t replace my primary flight instruments, but a Garmin GPS wasn’t going to do that either. I want something that gets me the planning and recording tools in a useful package that I can carry in and out of my Flying Club’s airplanes.

Here some more examples of iPad in Aviation as a use case:

So the “Is it great?”, “Is it Horrible?” discussion will continue. But amazingly the aviation world gave me another bit of clarity.

Computer is to iPad, as Airplane is to [Blank]

Well it finally clicked when I listened to Stephen Force great podcast Airspeed. He was talking about the ongoing battles in the next generation of aviation “systems” and the answer came:

Computer is to iPad, as Airplane is to UAV

The trade off is between the richness and serendipity of the experience versus the efficiency in achieving a specific mission. Interestingly, I found myself on different sides in each of these cases. I’m not going to turn in my pilot’s license for a RC airplane anytime soon. Actually, I never even had any interest in flying a RC airplane once I’d flown the real thing. And I expect Mr Doctorow would have a similar feeling about computers and the iPad.

Yet in the case of the iPad, I have little problem trading off the capability of my laptop for a simpler, lighter, mobile tool for use – among other things – when I’m flying.


Sometimes I wish more things operated on a Life and Death basis

… at least you’d know if you are doing it right.

It is somewhat dark humour to refer to ‘life and death’ as a preferred mode of operation but it does provide a useful view of how you are doing your own business.

A podcast got me thinking about this again. AVWeb’s podcast covers a lot lot flying related material but there are always things that apply beyond the pilots seat.

NASA on the Science of Pilot Error: “AVweb caught up with Dr. Key Dismukes, chief scientist for human factors at the human systems integration division at NASA Ames Research Center.”

I’ve moved between the world of technology, education and flying. I must admit I wish the first two worked more like the last one. It is just too easy to hobble along doing important work mediocrely and missing the less important stuff all together. When the results can be catastrophic you don’t accept the ‘whatever’ standard.

Memory is Good – Paper is better
While knowing your craft and having good skills and habits are the traits of a professional (pilot or other wise), you still don’t leave things to chance. The classic example is the use of the Checklist. Pilots drill on emergency procedures and learn to react to even the most bizarre situations. But, unless their is the most dire situation, you still go to the checklist. Its not that you don’t know what the list is, you don’t rely on memory if you don’t have to.
An example is when I used to do test prep skills with my students. I would tell them if there was specific facts you knew you needed somewhere in a test look at them before you went in the room and before you even started the test – turn the paper over, and right them down. They were shocked that this sounded like ‘cheating’ – the rule it you have to carry the info into the test in your head, no law about how long they had to stay there. Any reasonable person, would not rely on holding critical bit of information and expect to be able to recall them at a critical and stressful moment.

Avoiding Trouble is always preferable

A great Transport Canada safety poster proclaimed

A Superior Pilot is one who uses superior knowledge to avoid situations that require use of Superior Skill

I always loved this line. Too often we let problems degrade to the point that massive skill and effort is required to avoid disaster. Then we pat ourselves on the back for how we pulled it out in the end. This is viewed as a trait of a successful organization and it makes me want to weep. In IT circles the concept of Hero worship or the God complex drives many things that we do. I work with highly complex network systems and the assumption is that it is a big black box that no-one, save the chosen few can understand. Ultimately that is a disservice to ourselves and those our efforts are supposed to serve.
Saving a bad situation is a rush – don’t get me wrong. Whether it is the adrenaline or the glee of wrestling the near impossible to the ground it does drive our ego. Flying had this problem in the 50s and 60s. The post war ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ view carried into civil aviation. It wasn’t stupidity, it was people engulfed in a particular culture. Later analysis would show we probably killed a lot of people as a result. Hell I work in IT, and the culture is apparent every time I need to go into privileged mode on my servers – as in SUDO (for Superuser Do) -not that this should go to your head or anything…

Communicate, communicate, communicate
In the late 70s and early 80s there was a concerted effort to improve the way commercial airplanes were operated. The military hierarchy that prevailed post war flying was a problem. The view that the Captain could fly the airplane into the ground and everybody else would standby for instructions was not acceptable. Flight crews were made up of a group of people and there was a need to start operating as a team! This started with training in Cockpit Resource management (CRM). Prospective airline pilots were graded on their ability to communicate their actions and what need to be done. They was also a need to break up complex tasks and utilize the people around you affectively. Most importantly, there was an expectation that duties would be shared based on the situation not some perceived pecking order.
In teaching the hierarchy was wrapped up in the ‘Sage on the Stage’ model of teaching where all the information flowed from the brain of the teacher out. Whether it was in my flying or in my teaching, I hated that model. Information can come from many sources whether it is the kid in the third row or the flight attendant in mid-cabin. There is value in drawing information from any source and integrating it whether you are handling a classroom or an airplane.

Apathy Stinks

The wakeup calls happen just when you start getting too comfortable. There have been recent examples in flying of pilots getting to complacent and bad things happening. The NWA flight to Minneapolis is probably the widest known but the Colgan 3407 crash in Buffalo is the deadliest with 49 fatalities.

In the FAA report, of the four contributing factors to the accident here are the middle two:

(2) the flight crew’s failure to adhere to sterile cockpit procedures, (3) the captain’s failure to effectively manage the flight,

It’s not exactly the same as using you Blackberry while driving but ….


‘General’ Aviation

A new study shows the use of business jets and other small aircraft is more about companies trying to gain efficiency and improve the bottom line than about providing a luxurious perk to those at the top of the corporate ladder. The industry wants to dispel many misconceptions about how and why companies use general aviation.

(from Wired)

I’ve been a General Aviation pilot for over 20 years. I fly for enjoyment and occasionally to get from A to B. The focus of ‘Business Aviation” has been the jet – but the reality it that the small single and twin engine propellor aircraft are used by everything from the small construction company to major hydro and communication companies. Especially in British Columbia where driving distances are vast – travelling as ‘a crow flies’ takes a massive amount of time off getting somewhere. As the wired article points out only a small fraction of communities have scheduled air service. If you live in the lower Mainland, Victoria, Kelowna, Prince George you probably have some choices, less so for Prince Rupert, Smithers, Dawson Creek, and Cranbrook. If your in Nelson  or Quesnel you’ve got a significant drive head of you before you can even get to a scheduled air service.

Now there is no reason to expect that scheduled service can get everywhere. When you have to travel to some locations, costs are going to be high, including chartering a small aircraft if that is cheaper than a 12 to 16 hour drive.

General aviation has two challenges. The added security continues to put more and more restrictions on where you can fly and the amount of paperwork required. The latest example is the massive areas of the lower mainland which will be restricted during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. The restrictions extend to include Naniamo, most of the Gulf Islands and into the northern San Juan Islands.

The second challenge is keeping small airports operating. There was the notable case of the City of Chicago bulldozing Meigs field . Small aviation fields are considered a nuisance, and when land values rise, pressure to ‘develop’ can be overwhelming.

Aviation, like boating, hiking, snowmobiling, gets you out to experience areas of our planet you may not get to any other way. Its not a charity, and no one should feel that GA pilots are hard done by, but it shouldn’t be considered a luxury pursuit for the idle rich.