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You have a new glass panel airplane that will surely enhance your IFR flying, but you are not instrument current or proficient using the new equipment. You are planning an important business trip in the new airplane but are concerned you may have to file IFR. Add in some pressure to get there with challenging weather conditions and you have the recipe for an interesting scenario.

Another pilot has recently stepped up to a faster airplane that is capable of flying at higher altitudes. Even though he received transition training to build his operating proficiency in the new airplane, he discovered a significant gap in his IFR knowledge while on a routine flight at higher altitudes.

You are planning the "trip of a lifetime" to the Bahamas with your family. This is the reason you bought your well-equipped IFR airplane in the first place. First though, you need to have a few maintenance items taken care of by your local mechanic before the long flight. The day before the trip, you pick up the airplane from the maintenance shop and return it to your home airport. It's a simple, 20-minute flight—what can go wrong?

These are just a few of the learning scenarios presented by Pilotworkshops.com in the IFR Mastery series, a scenario-based online proficiency training program that's earned thousands of subscribers since its inception in 2005. The learning material at PilotWorkshops is presented by a team of nationally recognized flight instructors and industry experts who present actual and potential IFR flying scenarios in an online format that's available for Apple iOS, Android and Windows PC.

Interactive Proficiency Training 

PilotWorkshops.com was founded by Mark Robidoux who while studying for his instrument rating realized there was limited amounts of proficiency training available online. Instead, there was plenty of material that could help students pass the checkride but that didn't necessarily help a pilot maintain proficiency, especially when he or she is away from the aircraft. Using his expertise and experience from working in the high-tech web technologies industry, Mark started and grew PilotWorkshops.com.

The PilotWorkshops material includes audio and video workshop libraries and contains the Airmanship Series, offering tips for general airmanship, with tips for perfecting crosswind landings, night flying and managing nervous passengers, to name a couple.

There's also the IFR Proficiency series, offering tips for improving instrument skills, while the Aviation Weather workshop focuses on analyzing and understanding preflight weather planning and making inflight weather decisions.

According to Robidoux, the flagship IFR Mastery series is a specific product designed to keep the IFR pilot's head in the game and maintain logical decision-making skills. IFR Mastery is a monthly, subscription-based program, where staff instructors present one specific flight scenario per month. Based on the information that's presented, users practice desion-making skills much like they would if they were faced with the scenario in a real aircraft.  Each month, subscribers get an email reminding them when a new scenario has been added to the site.

What Would You Do?

The first step in completing a workshop is to watch a briefing video that sets the stage for the IFR flight scenario. This is essentially a synopsis of the mission to be flown, to include the aircraft type, location, routing, weather and other specifics that should immediately get your mind thinking of potential traps. PilotWorkshops tries hard to make the scenarios as realistic as possible (some were derived from real NTSB reports).

A scenario might include vivid language like "You're planning to fly your wife and daughter to SeaWorld in Orlando in your Cirrus SR22 so your daughter can fulfill her lifelong dream of swimming with the dolphins."

On the screen, you'll see a photo of a smiling young girl swimming on the back of a dolphin. As creepy as it may seem, it helps to present the real-world scenario of the pressures that tag along with completing a family trip, including the mention of a time-critical reservation at the destination, requiring that you and your family arrive by a certain time. It's easy to become engaged—and feel the pressure—by simply watching the scenario unfold on the screen.

This particular scenario continues by describing the filed IFR route from takeoff out of Charleston Executive airport in South Carolina to Kissimee, Florida, and includes the outlook briefing as it might look the night before departure, which includes ground fog and drizzle at Charleston, but forecasts good VFR shortly after departure and along the planned route. 

The scenario then advances to the morning of departure, and has you and your family driving to the airport in dense ground fog and arriving at the airfield where visibility is 1/4 mile with light drizzle, fog and a ceiling that's 100 feet, with a matching temperature and dewpoint. With tops at 2000 feet, takeoff is doable but leaves little wiggle room for your landing limits in case something goes wrong immediately after takeoff. Reporting stations within 100 miles of the departure airport show the same weather conditions.

Next, the scenario has you (after already delaying the departure) rushing your family into the Cirrus to get airborne to make the now tight reservation at SeaWorld—with your daughter strapped in the front seat—and a nervous wife in the back. After a rushed takeoff and while climbing through 300 feet, the passenger door pops open, creating a hurricane inside the cabin of the Cirrus, with rain water dripping on your crying daughters head. At the same time, your scared wife frantically ask what you are going to do (they even show a picture of a frightened wife nearly in tears over the situation).

Based on the information that was presented in the briefing—including reference to the SR22 POH that suggests reducing airspeed to 80-90 knots with an an open cabin door, yet also suggests a speed of 100 knots for flying precision approaches—you are given a list of options of how to best manage the situation. In the case of the unsecured cabin door, the options are:

1: Try to get the door shut and latched as soon as possible (which would get you to SeaWorld in time for the reservation)

2: Request a quick return to Charleston Executive Airport (which is just at landing limits and jeopardizes the reservation at SeaWorld)

3: Request a diversion to Charleston International Airport for better weather (missing the reservation at SeaWorld)

4: Continue on course and land at the nearest VFR airport to secure the cabin door (also jeopardizing the reservation).

Poll Your Answer

You then select your choice of action to the scenario using a live polling feature on the website, where you'll get instant feedback and get to compare your choice with those made by other members.

After making the selection on how you would handle the situation, you watch the instructor's analysis video and learn which option they chose and why. The instructors provide step-by-step instruction for each scenario and offer a detailed explaination of their own process for completing the flight.

In the scenario of the Cirrus with an open cabin door, instructor Wally Moran explains that continuing to the closest VFR airport to secure the cabin door is the best option. That's because with a reported ceiling of 2000 feet, you could soon climb into the clear (which stops the rain water from falling on your daughters head), cruise at the reduced airspeed that Cirrus recommends with an open door and fly a visual approach to the next VFR airport along the route (flying an instrument approach to minimums at a slower airspeed than you're accustomed to flying—with the distraction of scared passengers—is too risky, argues Moran).

While this option may seem to be the most logical, Moran notes that it's tempting to try and close the cabin door in flight because it seems to be the easiest way to solve the problem. On the other hand, he makes a good point in saying that he's never had success in closing a door in flight, and trying to do so at low altitude—in the clouds—is a recipe for disaster (confirmed by a photo of charred Cirrus wreck that appears on the screen). 

Hangar Talk

A useful resource is the virtual Hangar Discussion area, where you can discuss the scenario in a web forum format and also listen to the instructors' roundtable discussion. Here, the instructors discuss the situation among themselves and might offer differing advice on how to handle the situation.

In the Cirrus scenario, one instructor suggested declaring an emergency and ask ATC for radar vectors to shoot the approach at Charleston. Another suggested staying out of the clouds and avoid flying the approach to minimus at a slower than normal airspeed. Whatever the suggestions, the roundtable promotes additional thoughts and offers more suggestions on how to handle the situation. The roundtable also promotes useful discussions from other members on the forum.

The instructors also participate in forum discussions, creating a high quality forum experience. Speaking of high quality, the audio for each workshop is recorded in a professional studio and professional graphic designers create the onscreen props, so the production quality is quite good.

Completing any workshop qualifies you for credit in the FAA WINGS pilot proficiency program. The final step in the process takes you to a completion form that PilotWorkshop can submit to the FAA for credit.  Robidoux noted that Pilotworkshop submits over 400 WING completions per month.

The IFR Mastery series costs $19 per month, in addition to the optional $199 new member fee, which provides access to all of the scenarios in the library (there are close to 40 scenarios in the IFR Mastery series).

 

 

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Especially when looking at recent accidents involving scheduled airliners, it occurs that some people are still having problems with their landings. Yes, they can be difficult to master, especially when crosswinds or other factors complicate things and distract us. But this shouldn’t be so hard.

If you’re having trouble, it maybe you’re simply out of practice. If not, there may be something you’ve forgotten, or were never taught. Let’s run through five typical landing problems and some solutions.

Pattern Precision

A good landing results from a good approach, and a good approach starts with a well-flown pattern. If you find yourself jockeying throttle, pitch and flaps while sliding down final, the cause may involve a sloppy pattern, one either at the wrong altitude or placing you too close or too far from the runway on downwind. Failing to reduce power and properly configure the airplane can have an impact, also.

There are many rules of thumb for how close or far from the runway we should be on downwind. In a high-wing airplane, maybe the runway should be two-thirds of the way up the strut, if any. In a low-wing, maybe it should align with the fuel cap, or some other identifiable feature. The real answer depends on the airplane and how you fly the base leg.

If you’re in a relatively slow trainer, you may want to be closer to the runway on downwind. In faster airplanes, which need more room to make the next two turns before aligning with the runway, a little extra space may help. If you’re high, and were trained to reduce and set power abeam the numbers, configuring the airplane and then waiting a bit before turning base, you might not be pulling off enough power or waiting too long before turning. The tell is how high you are when you turn final. If you need to add power, it’s likely you’re extending the downwind leg too far. If the air- plane is too high after the turn from base, you’re not pulling off enough power.

Try this: Abeam the numbers, pull off the power, drop the gear and a notch of flap, then immediately turn your base leg. Don’t touch a thing until you’ve turned final. If the power reduction was correct, all you’ll need to do is apply the rest of the flaps. The airplane will naturally steepen its descent and slow.

If you appear high, continue the approach, allowing the flaps and reduced power to steepen the approach. If you wind up too low, execute a go-around and try again, reducing power to a slightly higher setting on the next attempt.

Each airplane is different, even though many of us were taught to do things in the pattern by rote. If you’re too high, too low or too fast on final, make power, configuration and pattern-turn adjustments on downwind. Based on winds at pattern altitude and on the surface, learn to gauge conditions so there’s minimal power jockeying from downwind to touchdown.

Evaluation

Some pilots fail to assess their approach and are surprised when they turn final and the airplane is too high or too low. We’ll take too high over its opposite every day, but the idea here is to be Mama-Bear-just-right.

One way to help evaluate your pattern and approach would be to establish target altitudes and airspeeds at various points. Examples might be 800 feet agl and 90 knots when initiating the turn to base, then 400 feet and 80 knots when turning final. On short final, you’d want to bleed off some of that speed, perhaps by adding full flaps, reducing power a bit or both.

The how-go-zit evaluation based on firm numbers falls down when the wind is strong, though, or when you’re extending the downwind for traffic. In the latter case, you probably should be maintaining altitude until turning final, which will be longer than usual. In the former, you need to remember that a stiff wind on the ground usually means a stiffer one on downwind. On final, your groundspeed will be slower, but on downwind, it’ll be higher. Delay your descent, perhaps until nearing the turn to final. And initiate the turn to base—which should be greater than 90 degrees, to crab into the wind—sooner than you would normally.

Sight Picture

Another element of evaluating an approach focuses on, well, where along the runway your focus is during the final approach and flare. Ideally, you want to focus down the runway, which helps improve your depth perception and the accuracy with which you gauge your height above the runway.

Just as when deciding how close or far away from the runway you should be on downwind, each air- plane offers a different sight picture. But that shouldn’t matter—you should be gauging your final approach and the point at which you’ll flare by looking down the runway, not at the numbers. Your first few landings were spent trying to figure out from what height the airplane could survive your flaring, but by now you know. The likely problem is you’re having trouble gauging how high you are. Surprisingly, looking down won’t help at all. Until you memorize the sight pictures involved in a good landing, you’ll be hunting and fishing for the correct ones. The graphic at the bottom of this page gives an example of where you should be looking: Not immediately in front of the airplane, and not at the other end of the runway, but somewhere in the middle.

Flaring

The sight picture is critical to helping you determine where, when and how enthusiastically to begin the flare. And flare you must, since landing on the nosewheel can lead to all sorts of outcomes, most of them bad.

Ultimately, you’ll find that the speed with which you move the pitch control to transition from a nose-down to a nose-up attitude varies according to how fast you are and at what height above the runway you begin the flare. You can eliminate some of the variables by always approaching at the same speed.

If you do, and if you apply the nose-up pitch at the same rate every time, your landings will be consistent. They may still be poor ones, but you’ll be consistent. In that case, continue using the same airspeed, but vary the pitch-up rate: If you’re dropping it in, don’t pitch so high. If you’re doing three-pointers in a tricycle-gear airplane, pitch up more enthusiastically. Ballooning, of course, means either speed or pitch-up rate are too high. Fix one, then the other.

Airspeed Control

Last and certainly not least in our five suggestions on ways to improve your landings is controlling airspeed. As touched on earlier, you may want to establish different speed and altitude targets for various positions in the pattern, but the key to good landings is being at the right speed and right altitude when crossing the runway threshold.

Years ago, I was checking out in a V-tail Bonanza for insurance purposes. I’d never flown with that instructor before, but he clarified everything about landing the Bonanza when he suggested 70 KIAS “over the fence” short of the runway was an appropriate target speed. He was right.

Unless you’re flying a twin, an exotic single or experimental, you don’t want to be much faster coming over the fence. Certificated singles, by regulation, cannot have a landing-configuration stall speed (VSO) at gross weight greater than 61 knots. Coming across the fence at the speed of light (e.g., 80-90 KIAS) only means you’ll be waiting, waiting, waiting for the airplane to slow down enough to land, eating up precious runway all the while. At best, you’ll be nibbling at the flare while decelerating, until pitching up results in settling instead of ballooning.

On long runways, and with faster traffic nipping at your tail, by all means use a high speed until short final. But don’t try to land at that same high speed.

You’ll need to bleed off all that energy before flaring or even thinking about touching down. Trying to plant the airplane on the runway when it’s not ready is a recipe for landing on the nosewheel, if so equipped, and collapsing it. At best, you’ll bounce. At worst, you can be responsible for major repairs or a totaled airplane.

All Together Now

You can navigate through the busiest airspace on the planet, dodge thunderstorms like a pro and have ATC eating out of your hand, but if you botch the landing, that’s all anyone cares about.

Landings aren’t hard, but they can be tricky when the wind’s not calm. With these suggestions, you can hopefully diagnose and repair the flaws in your technique. If not, there may be something more fundamentally wrong. Invest in an instructor and let him/her make some recommendations. You’ll know when you’ve nailed it.

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Aviation Safety magazine.

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That faint humming sound you hear is the media-industrial complex gearing up for the first commercial space tourism flights, which Virgin Galactic seems likely to pull off next year, if not sooner. On NBC news Friday, I saw an advance story on Virgin Galactic with an interview with Richard Branson. It’s pre-promo; NBC has signed a deal to broadcast the first flight live on the Today show. It promises to be quite the spectacle.

Right behind Virgin is another company, XCOR, which also intends to compete in the space tourism business, but its longer term goal is a reusable orbital vehicle. The two companies are offering very different rides indeed. XCOR, you might remember, is the company that developed the engines for the Rocket Racing League, one of those terrific, holy-cow-cool ideas that just never seemed to jell, although they did some spectacular demo flights at AirVenture.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say Virgin Galactic is offering the Space Shuttle to XCOR’s Gemini. Virgin’s space craft is a Burt Rutan-conceived eight-person design—six passengers and two pilots—that’s air launched from 50,000 feet from a purpose-built aircraft. XCOR has the Lynx, a two-person spacecraft that’s not much larger than a Cirrus SR22. It’s uncompromisingly optimized for altitude, not payload, and it’s ground launched from a runway, not an aircraft in flight. Virgin’s Space Ship Two has a hybrid solid-fuel/oxidizer engine while the Lynx uses four liquid fuel rockets.

Quite a difference in ticket prices, too. Virgin Galactic, which claims to have 600 passengers signed up, is charging $250,000 compared to $95,000 for the XCOR ride, at least as of now. The Lynx hasn’t flown yet, while Virgin Galactic’s Space Ship Two is well into testing.

Reading about these two approaches to space rides—Michael Belfiore wrote an insightful article on Lynx in the November Air&Space magazine—got me to thinking which one I’d pick if I had that kind of money to toss away on an afternoon joyride. A quarter of a million bucks is a lot of money, but you and I both know people who can afford it. Question is, would they decide to?

Money aside, the Virgin ride sounds more bus like, promising the group dynamic of training together for a couple of days, a longer overall flight because of the air launch phase and, best of all, the opportunity to unstrap and float around the cabin for a bit in zero G. That sounds like fun, but you could do it for a lot less through Zero G Corporation’s parabolic flights. Of course, the view’s not nearly as spectacular.

In the Lynx, it’s just you and the pilot. No air launch claw for altitude and maybe not the same anticipation of what’s about to happen, either. The thing is towed out to the runway, cleared for takeoff and it’s one eyeball-squashing, ears-pinned-back grand swoop from rotation to the top of the arc at 330,000 feet. You get the zero G, but you have to stay strapped in the seat. Like Virgin’s Space Ship, Lynx returns to the departure runway as a glider.

So which would it be? Tough call. Since I’m basically an anti-social grump, I have no overwhelming desire to “share” this experience with five other people. I’d just as soon sit next to Rick Searfoss and beg for some Lynx stick time. I’d exchange floating off the seat in zero G for the raw sensation of pointing straight up and reaching Mach 1 and 2.5 Gs in about a minute, all from the front seat. Not bad. You could do two of those flights and have change left over for a small yacht.

Either way, it’ll be great to have a choice in space thrill rides, even if I never get to make one. How about you? Shuttle or Gemini?

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This week’s news that the Department of Justice has settled its opposition to a merger of American Airlines and USAirways raises some unanswerable questions but one certainty: The U.S. now has only three major carriers, Delta, United and the new American, once the merger is finalized. The USAirways name will be absorbed and will eventually disappear, but it will probably take several years for that to happen. (In the meantime, the pilots once again get to figure out how to merge seniority lists.)

In its pleading to the DOJ, American argued that it couldn’t possibly compete as a standalone with Delta—which merged with Northwest—and United, which merged with Continental. DOJ didn’t buy that because it saw the new combined airline as being too dominant in at least two markets, New York and Washington. So as part of the approved deal, the new airline will sell off slots in those two cities, plus Chicago, possibly to low-cost carriers, thus preserving at least some semblance of competition.

So what will it mean having only three majors? No one knows for sure, but historically, at least recently, mergers haven’t driven fares up nationally except in some select markets. Fares have moved up modestly since 2007, but average inflation-adjusted fares are actually lower than they were 15 years ago, according to Reuters. The fare increases we’ve seen have largely been due to fuel-price hikes. Airlines have been notorious for flying around seats at below cost, which no doubt contributed to American’s bankruptcy.

But none of us should confuse fares with either add-on fees or service quality, which live in their own strange world independent of normal supply and demand. The upsell for baggage, for seats with more legroom, for food and even for boarding order has become the Holy Grail of airline profitability. On the last American flight I was on, they even cheaped out on the pretzels, although I got a full can of diet Dr. Pepper.

More than anything else, this proliferation of fees has moved airlines out of the red and into the black, although not by much. American recently reported a quarterly record $530 million in profits, belying its claim that it can’t compete with Delta and United. To get that number, they had to back out exceptional costs related to AA’s bankruptcy, but the trend is still notable.

Not that airlines have suddenly become a great business to be in. Airlines for America, an industry trade group, reports that industry wide, profits have softened since 2010, shrinking from 1.6 to 0.2 percent in 2012. Presumably, there are still things airlines could unbundle and charge for, including that Dr. Pepper I so enjoyed and for carry-on baggage. (Spirit already does the latter.) Frankly, I expect to see more of this, not less, with just three majors. That's why the low-cost carriers like Southwest and JetBlue have such an important role to play.

Besides the merging of the pilot lists, the new AA will have to merge frequent flier programs, too. I suspect the real loyalists will see some changes, maybe good, maybe not. American said it would merge USAirways passenger miles into the American list, which sounds fair enough. But American has a multi-tiered upgrade program for its Advantage members and it has nearly twice as many airplanes and more first class seats than USAirways does, thus more upgrade opportunities. So what happens when all the riff-raff from USAirways clogs up the program? Will there be more or fewer upgrades for the stalwarts? Will the USAirways loyalists enjoy more perks? Or will it just mean less bin space for gate lice like me? I’m pretty much counting on that.

And will the baggage-fee issue get more competitive? Leaving Dallas last month from AOPA Summit, I was behind a couple who spied a Southwest 737 on the adjoining taxiway with a big sign and arrow pointing to the baggage bay: “Bags Fly for Free Here.” The man remarked to his wife that they ought to check Southwest next time they fly into Dallas. Better be quick about it. Southwest is considering bag fees, too.

The merger will give American the largest route structure and the most airplanes of any carrier which, in theory, ought to make them attractive to the lucrative top of the market; business travelers who value flexibility and choice, but aren’t price sensitive. In a 2012 report, (PDFAirlineFinancial.com’s Bob Herbst said the Delta and United mergers gave those airlines strong pricing power to poach business travelers from American. With a larger route structure and predicted lower operating costs and efficiencies in the future due to a younger pilot population and newer aircraft, American is poised to get them back. In his report, Herbst concluded that the AA/USAirways merger was a must do if either airline hoped to compete.

Still, it’s a tough business to be in. American’s parent, AMR, said in its news release announcing DOJ’s acquiescence to the deal, that it would generate up to $1 billion a year in profits. Sounds like a tidy sum. But it will take about $38 billion in revenues to earn it, bringing to mind something Richard Branson once said in a variation on a theme those of us in aviation know all too well: If you want to become a millionaire, start as a billionaire and buy an airline.

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