The time and effort spent earning an instrument rating offers a pilot more than just added flexibility. It could save your life.
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Another pilot once told me he had been caught on top of cloud layers several times during his flying career but always escaped safely by simply
calling ATC for an IFR clearance to get below the cloud decks and fly on VFR to his destinations. What was so unusual was that this pilot had never earned an instrument rating.
What bothered me most was this pilot's obvious disregard for the regulations, not once but several times. In fact, he made this all sound like "I'm going to get there no matter what" was a normal
procedure for him. He thought ATC would prefer to know he was there to begin with. He assumed that what he did was better than just shutting off his transponder and descending through the clouds on
his own. Apparently, it never occurred to him that these trips were all illegal.
Perhaps that same attitude was present when a pilot crashed a Mooney near the Van Nuys, Calif., airport in June 2005. He also did not have an instrument rating and crashed while executing the ILS
approach to Runway 16 through the clouds at Van Nuys one night after the control tower had closed. The pilot was the sole occupant of the aircraft. He was killed when the aircraft impacted the south
slope of a shallow ravine approximately five miles north of the VNY airport.
According to the NTSB report of this accident, the pilot of the Mooney called the aircraft's owner at
approximately 1622 PDT to say he was preparing to depart San Jose for John Wayne Airport at Santa Ana. The aircraft owner told investigators that they spoke about the weather and that he (the pilot)
said he would check it regularly since the forecast did not look good. His plan was to fly to John Wayne Airport for dinner and then on to the Whiteman Airport located four miles northeast of VNY
The NTSB does not mention the conditions under which the pilot compensated the Mooney's owner for the flight time, nor why the owner seemed to exercise little control over his own asset.
The aircraft departed San Jose between 1630 and 1700 for John Wayne some 375 miles to the southeast and was expected to arrive between 1900 and 1930 and did, in fact, land at 1915 local. The female
witness who met the pilot upon landing said he was in a good mood, did not seem tired and did not mention weather concerns before she returned him to the airport at around 2115. The witness noticed
clouds and asked the pilot if he was sure he wanted to fly. The pilot replied that the weather was 100-percent fine. She did not see the pilot officially check the weather reports before departure.
The aircraft departed John Wayne at 2145 for Whiteman under VFR. The pilot was in contact with the ATC during most of the flight and the topic of weather did emerge early on. On initial contact, ATC
asked the Mooney pilot if he could climb to a higher altitude to clear airspace ahead, to which the pilot said "No" due to cloud cover. The controller asked if the pilot was IFR qualified. When the
Mooney pilot answered yes, the controller queried him about why he had not departed John Wayne IFR, since clouds extended all the way to Van Nuys.
The Mooney pilot responded by asking the controller for an IFR clearance. When the controller said he was unable, the pilot said he would continue VFR and return to John Wayne and land if he was
unable to proceed.
At 2256 the aircraft was over Santa Clarita, about 25 miles northwest of Los Angeles, at 4500 feet when the pilot contacted SOCAL (Southern California Combined Approach Control) and requested an ILS
approach into Van Nuys. The controller suggested the pilot fly towards the final approach course VFR, but issued a transponder squawk.
SOCAL verified that the pilot had the Van Nuys weather, radar identified the Mooney and told the pilot to expect an IFR clearance once the aircraft was on the localizer. At 2258 the controller
suggested a VFR heading of 130 to intercept the localizer and issued the IFR clearance when the aircraft was four miles from the marker.
A few minutes later, ATC told the Mooney pilot he was slightly left of the centerline and asked if he was turning back. The pilot responded he was trying and ATC seemed to confirm the correction a
minute later when they also announced that the aircraft was over the marker.
ATC told the pilot about some local VNY traffic before instructing him to change to advisory frequency and report his time on the ground. A moment later, the Mooney pilot announced on the Common
Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) that he was on a six-mile final for Runway 16. Shortly thereafter, the Mooney pilot called SOCAL again reporting an undefined problem and announced he was "climbing
out." Radar history showed the aircraft made a sudden turn to the right that took the aircraft off the localizer just before he made that transmission. The pilot did not acknowledge ATC's first call
to proceed southbound and climb to 5000 feet. He did acknowledge SOCAL's second call with an affirmative. It was also the last transmission received from the aircraft.
Radar data revealed that the aircraft's track along the localizer was not straight and had overshot the course initially to the east and then corrected back on to the centerline at the outer marker.
It then deviated to the east again and corrected back to the final approach course before making an abrupt 90-degree turn away from the final approach course to the west.
At first, the Mooney headed west, climbing from 2100 feet to 2500 feet, before descending back down to 2400 feet. It then turned south for half a minute before again climbing from 2400 feet to 3000
feet. The last ground track showed the aircraft headed northwesterly with altitude changes from 3000 feet to 2400 feet, and then down to the accident elevation of 1253 feet.
FAA records revealed that the pilot held a private certificate with a single-engine-land rating, but did not possess an instrument rating. His third-class medical certificate was valid.
Officials at the site recovered the pilot's logbook. It revealed that the pilot had a total of 205.6 flight hours as of the last entry, on Jan. 30, 2005, nearly six months prior to the accident. He
had logged 11.5 hours of simulated instrument time, but no actual. The last instrument training flight recorded was 13 months before the accident flight. There was also no record of the pilot ever
having taken so much as a single lesson related to instrument flying.
A relative of the pilot, who happened to be instrument rated, said he had flown safety pilot for the victim five or 10 times, all on practice ILS approaches to VNY. The relative said he was not aware
of the pilot's total instrument time, or whether he had ever actually flown in the clouds.
The surface analysis chart for the evening of the accident showed a weak, onshore flow with high relative humidity along the central California coast. At 2251 the wind recorded by the Van Nuys
Automated Surface Observation System (ASOS) was 150 degrees at 6 miles, with a 1400 feet overcast and six miles visibility with haze added to a temperature of 16-degrees Celsius and a 13-degree
dewpoint. Reported weather an hour later was virtually the same.
There is no record of the pilot receiving a weather update before the flight. The area forecast that night called for broken clouds between 1000 and 2000 feet MSL with tops at 4000 feet for the
coastal areas and an outlook for marginal VFR conditions. Inland areas were to be clear of clouds until 2300 local time when it was expected that clouds would fill in the area with bases at 1000 feet
and tops at 3000 feet. The outlook for southern coastal waters was for IFR due to ceilings and mist.
The aircraft owner showed investigators an invoice for the overhaul of the Mooney's attitude indicator six weeks before the crash. The owner indicated that the pilot might have installed it himself.
There were no entries in the aircraft logs indicating that any work had been completed by a licensed mechanic. Again, why the aircraft owner seemed to exercise so little control over his own aircraft
is unknown. A series of photos recovered from the pilot's digital camera -- dated May 19, 2005 -- seemed to confirm the indicator problem.
This pilot seemed to believe that landing where he wanted, when he wanted, was the most important issue that night. No one knows why the aircraft never arrived at nearby Whiteman that evening. What
There is no record of the pilot ever having checked weather, although that doesn't necessarily mean he didn't. He seemed to be aware of the weather conditions when he spoke to SOCAL controllers, and
claimed he was aware of the VNY weather when ATC cleared him for the approach.
No pun intended, but the pilot had clearly stacked the deck against himself from the very beginning. A quick, after-dinner check of weather would have revealed deteriorating conditions. Did the pilot
simply plan to file an IFR flight plan if he got himself in a corner? While there is no way to know for certain, every indication is that he felt capable of flying in the clouds though he did not
possess an instrument rating.
Did this pilot perhaps climb through the clouds without a clearance to get on top so that he would be high enough to pick up an IFR clearance over Santa Clarita? Most likely, since the cloud deck was
pretty solid from Santa Ana to Van Nuys and beyond.
Perhaps climbing and descending through the clouds gave him the confidence that he could fly the ILS approach into Van Nuys. After all, he had tried that approach many times before, even if it was
under VFR with a safety pilot.
What role did the aircraft's equipment issues pose? The pilot was obviously aware there was a potential instrument problem that should have precluded him from flying that night.
The NTSB determined that the cause of the accident was the pilot's decision to attempt flight into instrument
meteorological conditions, which resulted in loss of control due to spatial disorientation.
Factors that contributed to the accident included restricted visibility, low ceilings, night lighting condition, an undetermined attitude-gyro problem, and -- most of all -- the pilot's lack of
qualification/experience for flight in instrument conditions.
Ironically, a flight like this would have been an easy and quick one for a proficient instrument pilot.
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Each system has its pros and cons, but our top pick is Poly Fiber. However, the shop's skills may matter more than the material itself.
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The emerging Light Sport Aircraft market has ignited new interest in airplanes at the $100,000 price point and below. Most of these airplanes are
composites, but buyers not interested in spending that much are looking hard at older LSA-compliant taildraggers -- Cubs and Champs, for instance. That means renewed interest in a technology as old as
aviation itself: fabric covering.
So let's say you've found your dream ragwing and you want to buy it and fly it. You probably know all about aluminum spam cans, but what about that fabric covering? Cloth is World War I stuff, isn't
it? Should you even consider buying a fabric-covered airplane and, if so, how do you assess the condition of the skin or anticipate problems you'll have to pay for later? You need to know what to look
for in evaluating a fabric-covered airplane, what it takes to fix problems and the choices available when deciding on a complete recover job. In this article, we'll address those very questions.
Beginning with da Vinci's gliders, fabric has covered our flying machines. In the early days, cotton or linen was sewn to the airframe, shrunk somewhat with water, then painted with a cellulose-based
coating called dope to further tighten and protect the porous fabric. That protection wasn't complete, however, as organic fabrics are subject to rot from fungi that eat the fiber. Nitrate dope was
initially used, but its disadvantage was that it burned ferociously when ignited. An early cover job might last for only a handful of years, if it didn't catch fire first.
During World War II, butyrate dope -- sometimes referred to as CAB for cellulose acetate butyrate -- was found to be less flammable, so it replaced nitrate and continued to be used over cotton and
linen for years. But fungus could still be a problem. The typical lifespan of a butyrate-dope covering was seven to 15 years, although a few well-preserved airplanes still carry their decades-old
cotton/dope skins. A friend of mine has a 48-year-old Tri-Pacer wearing its original cotton fuselage fabric. (It's scheduled for recover this year.)
In the 1950s, heat-shrinkable polyester fabrics were introduced, reducing the time required for installation because the fabric could be glued rather than sewn to the airplane. Other than the rare
museum restoration that uses organic fiber for authenticity, polyester fabrics are used almost exclusively these days. Polyester is stronger than natural fiber, easier to work with and not susceptible
to fungal rot, although sunlight will deteriorate the unprotected fiber.
A small problem is that butyrate won't stick to the slick synthetic fibers, so the old nitrate dope is used for the first coat, then butyrate is applied thereafter. Increasingly though, more modern
vinyl- and polyester-based coating systems are replacing traditional dope. But with any of the systems available today, a properly executed cover job should last 30 years or more.
Buy or Not?
Should you be afraid of a fabric-covered airplane? Not necessarily. In fact, in many cases, the airframe of a fabric airplane is in better shape than its metal-skinned contemporaries. Most older
fabric airplanes have been re-skinned at some time in their past, along with inspection and refurbishing of the inner workings at the same time. When was the last time you heard of someone pulling the
skins off an aluminum-covered airplane to see what's underneath?
An added benefit: Fabric skin isn't structural. If a bear bites a hole in your metal moose-hauler, you may not get home, but a few claw marks won't weaken the structure of your rag wing. In fact, many
airplanes (notably the Stinson 108 series) underwent "metalizing" about 40 years ago, back when a fabric recover job was viewed as temporary. Today, with the advent of better materials and coatings,
many of those same airplanes are being "de-metalized" and returned to their original, lighter, fabric coverings. There's a reason why many hard-working bush airplanes and ag aircraft have fabric
coverings, which are tough, durable and easy to repair.
But nobody alive knows how to repair these old crates, right? Truth is, fabric-covered airplanes are more numerous than ever -- more than 34,000 are registered with the FAA, a number that grows daily.
Some 3000 airplanes are recovered each year, so there are plenty of shops practicing this dying art that isn't dying at all.
As with anything in aviation, money may be the deciding factor in whether to purchase a new or older ragwing. Are you looking at a brand-new Husky or Top Cub? Expect to pay $130,000 to $200,000 and
enjoy a flawless, I-can't-believe-that's-fabric finish. Is your budget geared more toward a 60-year-old Champ or Tri-Pacer? It's possible to get in the air for $15,000, but you'll probably have
existing patches, cracks in the finish and the prospect of a recover.
How can you judge an airplane by its cover? First, determine the type of fabric. Most airplanes covered in the past 30 or 40 years will have a polyester fabric coated with various finishes. There were
some holdouts who used cotton or linen until supplies became almost nonexistent, but polyester (commonly known by the names Dacron, Ceconite, or Stits) is the material of choice today. If you want to
buy an airplane wearing outdated cotton or linen, assume it will need a complete recover job along with repairs to the structure hiding under that old skin. Price it accordingly.
How do you know what's hiding under that pretty paint? If the fabric is not factory original, the airframe logbook entries are the first place to look, although many lack detail. It's nice to open a
logbook and find an entry like this: "Recovered complete airframe with Ceconite 101 fabric, one brush coat and two spray coats of Randolph Rand-O-Proof, four spray coats of clear CAB dope, three spray
coats of silver CAB dope, four spray coats of colored CAB dope, Insignia White."
More likely the logbook will read something like, "Recovered aircraft this date, see 337." Your hike down the paper trail begins. If any major component of an airplane is stripped and recovered, or
any fabric repair is larger than 16 inches, it's considered a major repair and requires the filing of an FAA Form 337 with the FAA. If that form is not included with the rest of the airplane's
paperwork, you need to know about the greatest bargain in FAA land: The $10 disk. Go to this FAA Web page to request a CD-ROM containing a picture of every
record filed for that airplane; registration forms, airworthiness forms and every Form 337 ever sent in to Oklahoma City. With that information, you can determine what process was used to cover the
airplane and what materials were used for repair.
If no Form 337 was filed or it doesn't go into much detail, each system has a color code in its base coat, so an experienced fabric guru can take a look inside a wing or fuselage and discern one
system from another. That's handy to know, but if there's no Form 337 for a recover job, it's indicative of sloppy maintenance practices and you need to have a talk with an A&P before proceeding. The
airplane is technically not airworthy and you have some paperwork issues to clear up before you take ownership.
After determining that the fabric is a modern polyester, take a look at the coatings. First, understand that sunlight is polyester fabric's worst enemy and exposure to UV rays must be avoided. Left
outdoors in the sun, unprotected polyester fabric will lose about 75 percent of its strength within a year. I have poked a finger through five-year-old fabric that looked great, but didn't have enough
This next part gets tricky. With dope, Poly Fiber or Stewart systems (see "Recovering Systems," above right), the UV barrier is a physical one: It's powdered aluminum or carbon mixed with some of the
coatings, which forms a light-proof barrier against sunlight penetration. If you look inside the wings or fuselage, it should be dark as a cave. If you can see light, so can the fabric.
By contrast, the all-polyurethane systems (Superflight, Air-Tech) put UV barriers in the coatings that block the bad rays yet let some light through, so the fabric sees light but not UV. Know which
system you're inspecting and what to expect. The airplane with my finger holes in it lived outside in Colorado, whereas most airplanes spend most of their lives in dark hangars. It's fabric and it's
paint ... this ain't rocket surgery.
A 20-year-old finish is bound to have some blemishes. A few cracks in the paint will be evident, usually at a sharp radius or someplace that gets a lot of wear, such as a door or lift/push handle. If
you can see fabric through cracks in the paint, plan to repair those areas to preserve the fiber. It's not hard to dab on a bit of dope with a brush -- you can sand it smooth and spray it pretty if
you need a higher level of aesthetics. The tops of wings get the most sun, rain and other abuse so look there for lifting finishing tapes -- the two-inch-wide strips of fabric that cover ribs -- nicks
and rips near fuel caps and around the wingtips. These seem to attract hangar rash. Sticks and rocks can damage fuselage and tail undersides. A few repairs on an older airplane are common -- that's
one of the beauties of fabric. A ding or tear may require a bit of glue, a fabric patch and some paint, whereas aluminum damage means riveting in a replacement piece. Did you bang up a wingtip or tear
up a tail? Cut away the fabric, repair the damage underneath and splice in a new piece of skin.
A five-year-old cover should be in almost new shape, other than minor repairs. On older skin, you might find "ringworm," a spiral crack in the paint that has nothing to do with worms or fungus. It's
caused by hail or some other impact and is indicative of brittle paint. The cracks usually expose the fabric to the elements. Dab on some paint and fly. Porcelain-like cracks in old dope and Poly-Tone
can be rejuvenated by spraying solvents containing plasticizers that soften the topcoat and melt the hairline cracks together, followed by a new topcoat.
On the other hand, if large chunks of the coating are peeling off right down to the fabric, there's a problem with adhesion of the base coat and the work and expense required to repair it rivals a
complete recover job.
Punches in the Green
Paint is mostly cosmetic, so the real concern is how strong the fabric itself is underneath that paint. The seller says, "Don't worry, it comes with a fresh annual, a new paint job and the fabric
punches in the green!" He's referring to the mysterious Maule Tester, a good tool in the right hands, but one of the most misunderstood in the box. It's a device that looks like a stick-type tire
gauge, where a spring-loaded tip is pushed against the fabric. If the scale reaches some magic value without punching through the skin, your airplane passes the test. One problem: The FAA doesn't
recognize this test. Their official position is that it can be used "at the discretion of the mechanic to base an opinion on the general fabric condition" (AC 43.13-1B, para 2-34). A second problem is that, to
be accurate, the tip must be pressed against bare fabric, otherwise you're testing the punch strength of the paint. Another variable is the discretion involved. Is it your mechanic or the seller's
mechanic? A push on the top of the wing might yield a hole, but the bottom of the wing has never seen sun and tests fine. Strong, fresh paint can mask weak fabric.
The test the FAA does recognize is to cut a one-inch wide strip of fabric off your airplane, take off all the coatings, and hang 56 pounds on it to see if it breaks. Time for a reality dose: Nobody
cuts up their airplane to do this test. My friend with the old Tri-Pacer was told six years ago by one IA that the fabric wouldn't pass inspection. Another IA with a Maule Tester and better judgment
has allowed a perfectly safe airplane to continue flying.
In real life, the mechanic looks for rips, lifting tapes and poor glue joints, checks the coatings for obvious cracks and missing chunks that would let UV in, peers inside to see if light passes
through and checks paint flexibility by pushing with a knuckle -- the same things you'll do when you inspect your potential purchase.
Bottom line: You will see some cracks and there will have been some repairs. If polyester fabric is protected from the sun, it should last many years. Pretty is nice, but airworthiness isn't based on
aesthetics. Look at the total airplane, not just the surface paint. Not all shops are equipped to handle repairs, but it isn't witchcraft -- most mechanics have simply never dealt with it.
Minor repairs are allowed to be owner-performed and can save you money if you learn some simple techniques. Fabric airplanes are old, modern, beautiful, durable and not nearly as mysterious as their
reputation would suggest. It's a proven technology that's enjoying a resurgence in the light-airplane market. So don't shy away from a ragwing.
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