Volume 20, Number 18c

November 5, 2013

Is Owning Safer?

Pilots decide to buy their own airplane for a variety of reasons. It could be a business decision, helping ensure cover-age of a relatively wide sales area, or perhaps an aerial photography business. Specialized flight training—like acro, or a quicky instrument rating—also can be a reason. Recreation or personal transportation is yet another. One of my major motivations was safety.

The deal was cinched while flying a cross-country on a cold, moonless October night. My logbook shows a departure from Richland, Wash., at 2200 PST and arriving in Idaho Falls, Idaho, at 0230 MST. The note in the remarks section indicates the attitude indicator failed halfway along my route over the vacant Idaho wilderness. It was one of my last flights logged in a rental plane.

The Renters Dilema

And there in lies one of the obstacles to general aviation mass appeal: Vacuum pumps stop sucking, alternators stop charging, starters stop engaging, door latches stop holding and instruments occasionally fail regardless of who owns the airplane. With about 150 hours logged in the rental plane, I had experienced most of these modes? of failure. It may just be that I am?a control freak, but ownership sounded safer because it would put me in the driver’s seat on aircraft maintenance decisions while also giving me a chance to become more familiar with a single plane and its systems.

Reflecting on my experience owning several airplanes over the years, I think my logic was sound, but I also have learned there are ways ownership can become decoupled from safety.

Ownership Benefits

Perhaps the biggest safety gain from ownership is familiarity. When you own a plane and fly it regularly, you get to know how it performs, what different power settings and pitch attitudes yield in terms of speeds, fuel burn and the view over the cowl. Even with a good ANR headset, and perhaps because of it, you get to know what the engine sounds like in normal operations and under load. You intuitively know where the buttons, knobs and controls are, and how each system works. Or at least you should.

When you practice emergency procedures, you soon know by rote what to do if things go wrong. You’ll still pull out the appropriate checklist, but after a few years of ownership, it’s more for confirmation than for guidance. If you practice engine-out procedures, you also get to know what best glide looks like and when you can make an off-field landing and when you can’t. These are safety benefits you simply can’t find when flying other airplanes, even if they’re all basically the same type.

When it comes to an airplane’s mechanical condition, owners know their planes better than most renters. You know when the vacuum pump was installed, the last time the spark plugs were changed, the last time the magnetos were rebuilt. You know what the oil filter looked like when you cut it open at the last change, or how the #4 CHT probe has been acting up. If you’ve owned the plane for very long, you likely paid for the last annual inspection, pitot-static recertification or tire replacement and know what was done and how. You know what inspection or scheduled/unscheduled maintenance will be necessary in the near future. You also have the logbooks in your possession and can look these details up at any time.

In addition to knowing the maintenance history better than a renter, the owner also knows the avionics and panel better. It doesn’t matter what kind of stack you have, you know your panel and your scan is adapted to quickly find the information you are looking for whether it is oil temperature or the glideslope—you have become one with your machine.

Finally, you know the quirks of your particular bird. If there is a particular way to shut the door, a tendency to get carb ice on taxi or?a hot-start procedure that always works for your injected engine, you know it. If you don’t know it when you acquire the plane, you will develop your custom set of standard procedures and adapt your checklist and procedures accordingly after you map the quirks your particular plane.

Ownership Drawbacks

The biggest detriment of ownership is familiarity’s evil twin: complacency. When you own a plane, you might become lax on pre-flight inspections, fuel-level checks and checklists in general. You were the last one to use the plane, so why would it be any different than you left it?

My experience as a renter taught me to have a pre-flight mindset that the plane was not airworthy until I can prove otherwise during the walk-around. I would always review the squawk list for items that might be suspect and assume that the last guy abused the plane. As an owner, I tend to trust myself more than I trusted my fellow pilots in the rental club, but is that trust really well-placed?

I admit as an owner, I have strayed from checklist diligence a time or two, only to be reminded that there is a reason we are trained to use checklists. Procedures have sequences that are both time-proven and well-documented. You stray from that discipline at your peril, but I suspect owners are more apt to stray than renters.

Another issue that bites owners is the cost liability and sense of entitlement that comes with ownership. According to the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s 22nd Joseph T. Nall Report, which examined general aviation accidents occurring in 2010, “six percent of all non-commercial fixed-wing accidents (71) arose from losses of engine power for reasons that could not be determined after the fact.” Two of the 130 accidents in this category were associated with neglected maintenance or unapproved aircraft modifications by owners.

As the owner, you are the one who pays for maintenance issues, a double-edged sword which can lure you into deferring needed maintenance work. Sure, the plane has a minor shimmy when you landed last time, but the annual is coming up in a few months, so it can wait, right? A shimmy damper may not seem like an airworthiness issue, but it does help keep you between the runway lights. Would a Part 135 operation fix that or defer it?

Unlike renters, owners may also feel entitled to make little changes on their own. If you are a home builder, you may have a great deal of latitude when it comes to “custom” work, but certified aircraft owners often cop an attitude that they can modify their airplanes without the pesky paperwork that ensures continued airworthiness and makes any modifications, major or minor, legal in the FAA’s eyes, in the eyes of the next A&P- IA who inspects it or of the pilot to whom you’ll want to sell it in a few years.

The Cost of Experience

The one factor that affects my illusions of pilot competence more than any other is flight time. The more time I log, the more competent I feel as a pilot. Owning a plane gives me both access and schedule control allowing me to fly in a way that renting never would. When I have a business trip or a buddy who wants a ride into the back country, I don’t have to check if an airplane is available or if that usage is allowed by the club or FBO.

While it’s hard to beat the economies of scale that comes with renting or a club collective, I contend most pilots can pencil out an hourly rate for ownership that can come strikingly close to or even a bit better than big-city rental rates. You may have to downsize your dreams from that new Diamond or Cirrus to a ‘50s or ‘60s Piper or Cessna. You may have to give up the G1000 for a pair of Narcos and an iPad, but it’s likely there’s a sweet machine for sale locally or among the usual- suspect classified ads that you can afford to fly more cheaply than your trainer.

The one thing I miss about the rental pool, however, is its variety. As an owner, I get to fly one plane a lot, but as a renter I got to fly many planes a little. I miss the challenge and learning experience of getting checked out in new type or having to spend the first bit of time getting oriented to a different stack or different set of controls. Ownership dulls the basic orientation senses you hone when flying from a pool of different planes.

If I am planning a trip in hard IMC, I may want to fly a plane with a nicer panel. As an owner, I don’t have the flexibility of a renter who can simply pay a higher hourly rate for a plane with a nicer panel, an autopilot or a WAAS GPS. As an owner, I have to pay for the whole avionics upgrade myself, and haul around all that IFR-capable gear even on a nice day when all I want to do is fly low and slow. I also ?have to cover the annual, hangar and maintenance fees myself, plus additional expenses associated with all those panel-mounted bells and whistles, like database subscription fees.

For many owners, there is a brutal tipping point. That can arrive when the annual aviation budget is completely consumed by the cost of ownership with nothing left over for avgas. When your mechanic gives you an estimate of $15,000 to comply with ADs and you have a $5000 budget, you may have crossed the ramp-queen event horizon—you may own a plane you can’t afford to fly, hangar, insure or keep in annual. If you’re not flying, it’s likely your skills aren’t getting better and if you can’t afford to maintain your plane or fly it often enough to remain proficient, you’re little more than an aviator in search of a Zip Code in which to file an NTSB report.

Your Money, Your Choice

I chose to become an owner because I convinced myself and my wife that ownership made? good business sense and added to my personal safety. I know I fly more now, I know my plane and its systems better than I ever knew a rental. Selling one plane and acquiring a new one is getting me back into more disciplined operational habits.

But ownership is a double-edged sword. The aviation budget for flying is also the budget for maintenance and you cannot trade one for the other. Having control over maintenance increases your familiarity with systems, components and wear items but it can lead to deferred or neglected items or do-it-yourself mods that would never fly in a rental or charter environment. Owning a plane creates familiarity and a Zen-like oneness with the plane, but it can also lead to complacency and lax discipline. Both can have a painful bite.

So, is owning safer? The final answer is, “It depends,” but what it depends on most is the pilot in command.

This article appeared in June 2013 issue of Aviation Safety magazine.

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Are You Ready To Copy?

Recently I flew from Northern California to an airport I’d never been to in the Los Angeles area. The flight was uneventful until about 35 minutes from the destination when I received an amendment to my clearance. Amendments aren’t unusual in or around congested Class B airspace, but with modern electronic navigators, dealing with route changes can be challenging aviating. In this article we’ll examine the amendments received and some of the ways they could be resolved.

I was using Garmin’s G1000 but consider your nav equipment and how you might have handled the problem. The original clearance was:

Cleared to Rialto (L67) via the Watsonville 2 Departure, radar vectors SNS (Salinas), V137, HESPE, L67.

After entering the route into the G1000 we were soon level at 15,000 feet on V137. Approximately five minutes before reaching AVE (Avenal) and about 40 minutes from the destination, Center revised the clearance as follows:

After AVE, Direct GMN (Gorman) LHS (Lake Hughes) V459 to intercept V186 PDZ (Paradise) Direct.

Setting The Priorities

Because of mountainous terrain the MEA on last segment of V137 is 10,700 feet, yet it’s only about 12 miles from HESPE to the 1500 foot MSL Rialto airport, so I’d expected an amended descent routing. In the revised clearance, except for the destination everything after the next waypoint (AVE) was new. This was a whole new ballgame. Immediately entering the initial change to the routing was key to being able to meet the clearance as I was due to cross AVE in four minutes.

By entering only GMN, the next waypoint after AVE, I was at least prepared to navigate the first leg of the amended clearance. If the clearance had been to change to a different airway, entering the airway and its endpoint on would have only taken a minute or so longer. If I hadn’t had time to enter any waypoints, asking for a heading to GMN, setting the heading bug, and changing to HDG mode on the auto-pilot would have provided time for reprogramming. I could also have switched to VOR navigation using either AVE or GMN.

Locating The New Route

I cleared all of the remaining waypoints through to L67 so I could start with a clean slate. I then entered LHS, which was also the entry waypoint for V459. The challenge then was to determine where V459 intercepted V186. After a cursory review of the map on my iPad I couldn’t find V186. But there is a V386 intersecting V459 so I asked Approach if I misunderstood the airway—nope. I was told there is a V186, so I followed V459 until I saw the airways intersect roughly 32 miles from LHS. It turns out if I’d simply looked further down V459 I’d have seen V186. Or, if I’d followed V386 looking for PDZ, I’d have seen that it wasn’t on that airway.

But I was so focused on locating the intersection of the two airways to complete the routing before having to navigate it that I did neither. To quote my young son, “My Bad!”

I could have used ForeFlight’s search feature to find V186—but ForeFlight displays the full airway that is being searched for and it also deletes the existing route. Truly not what you’d desire; although it’s easy enough to reload the original flight plan.

An iPad Hiccup?

As neat as the iPad is, paper sometimes work better because when the iPad’s display is zoomed out to show more map the text sometimes gets illegible, yet when the text is legible the area displayed can be relatively small. I wonder how difficult this will be with an iPad Mini? 

Finding V186 or PDZ would have been much easier with a paper chart and so I’ll carry paper Terminal Charts in the future. Planning the transition between V459 and V186, I initially thought I might switch to navigating by VORs rather than GPS. Sometimes old technology is simpler to use because it doesn’t require programming and I knew the probabilities were good for getting another amendment to my clearance.

My next thought was to continue to navigate V459 using GPS and use a VOR set to PDZ to identify V186. Then, either press DIRECT TO PDZ or switch to VOR nav to establish the flight on V186. I could even use the G1000‘s RMI-like Pointers to identify the intersection. Set a pointer to the PDZ VOR and when the head of the needle reaches the appropriate airway course, you’re there. Start the turn early to roll out on course. It turns out there’s an easier answer. At the intersection of V459 and V186 is a closed triangle indicating the intersection of the two airways. It’s named DARTS, so I entered that as the end waypoint on V459 and selected V186 as the next airway. Finally, I selected PDZ as the end-point on V186. I pondered why the clearance didn’t include the name DARTS? The reason is probably that for those navigating solely by VORs, knowing DARTS has no value.

The Approach

With an undercast covering the LA Basin, I requested the NDB GPS-A approach. Nearing PDZ I was cleared to depart PDZ on the 045 degree radial. I set the heading bug on 045 degrees as a reminder, with the plan to push the OBS button and adjust the CRS knob to 045 degrees as I crossed PDZ to proceed outbound on the radial. I could also have pressed the HDG button and then arm NAV to intercept the final approach course because it’s a short distance. I could even have changed to VOR navigation but I’d have to change back to intercept the approach course. Seconds before arriving at PDZ, I was told: “Fly heading 043 degrees to intercept the final approach course. Cleared for the GPS-A approach.”

A quick two degree adjustment to the heading bug and pressing the HDG button when crossing PDZ initiated the intercept. The approach setup options with the G1000 are to choose the approach procedure and then select the entry method, either entering at an IAF, FAF, or selecting Vectors for the approach. Even if being vectored, the best choice is usually to select the appropriate IAF transition and Load rather than Activate the approach. If you Activate it, the G1000 immediately makes the IAF the active waypoint and that isn’t necessarily the best option when being vectored. If you select Vectors, the G1000 loads an abbreviated version of the approach— often minus some intermediate waypoints. That can make for a stressful situation if you are then cleared to a waypoint that isn’t included in the Vectors profile. Loading an IAF transition is the most flexible option.

When you Load the procedure, its waypoints are appended to the end of the flight plan. Once the approach clearance has been received, either select and enable the appropriate leg or select the waypoint you’ve been cleared to and the G1000 will continue the approach. The rest of the approach was straightforward, breaking out 300 feet above the MDA and completing a circle to land on Runway 24 with a reasonably strong crosswind from 200 degrees.

Two Take-aways

First, remember that if you receive a clearance to the crossing of two airways, look for a waypoint that identifies the intersection. If there is one it simplifies programming.

Second, reroutings have to be dealt with as a matter of course and it’s important that in the middle of the semi-stressful environment that you’re able to quickly think through what needs to be done to follow an amended clearance. The more ways you can think of to resolve any single navigation requirement, the more likely you’ll be able to come up with the best solution when you receive a daunting clearance.

This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of IFR Refresher magazine.

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Video: Experimental Lighter-Than-Aircraft Rally (XLTA) 2013

At an annual fly-in in Connecticut, pilots who design and build their own hot-air balloons gather to fly their aircraft, learn from each other, and try out new ideas.


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Airline Security: A Return to Sanity?

I can think of only one word to describe an airline passenger who goes through the TSA’s new streamlined security and feels vaguely grateful for having his rights somewhat restored. The word is pathetic, yet that was me last week when, entirely by random, I got shunted into the TSA’s new TSA Pre security procedure.

Basically, what TSA Pre is is a return to pre-9/11 airline security, at least at the gate. That means your bags go through the scanner, but your computer stays inside and your shoes stay on. You get a trip through the metal detector, but no backscatter scanner. In other words, it’s a return to sanity in the world of airline security. And it took 12 years to get here. Astonishing, really, but still welcome.

I got put into the TSA Pre line entirely by random chance, since it was undergoing testing two weeks ago when I flew to Las Vegas for NBAA. But you can apply for TSA Pre here and if you already have or intend to apply for Global Entry, TSA Pre, I’m told, can be granted as well.

I arrived at Tampa and headed for the long security line, which I’m used to by now. But a TSA agent looked at my ticket and directed me to a special aisle where there was no line. A second check of the boarding pass, the scanner and bag check and I was airside. If it took 90 seconds, I’d be surprised. I almost felt guilty. Almost.

“Don’t get used to it,” a TSA agent told me on the return flight from Las Vegas. As the program is more widely deployed, TSA Pre will be available to more passengers. That’s fine with me because it’s vastly faster than the bottleneck of removing computers, shoes, belts and other scanner unfriendly items and/or getting behind people who don’t understand they have to do this stuff.  On a busy travel day, the way we’ve been doing it is an ordeal at best.

The government says TSA Pre is an attempt to stop poking and prodding millions of passengers who, often demonstrably through frequent trips, represent no threat to aviation security and to apply intelligence-based solutions to the airline security problem. Maybe all that snooping NSA is doing has finally caused them to figure out that your typical domestic airline passenger never represented a threat to security and likely never will. Perhaps they’ve learned to actually look where the threats really are. At least that’s what they say. I’ll take what I can get, thanks.

That’s not to say, by the way, that I think airline security isn’t necessary. It obviously is. I do want the carry-on bags scanned and the metal detector deployed. For while it’s okay if I carry aboard a firearm, no one else should be allowed to, since I know I’m one of the good guys. But you? Maybe not. I'm sure you feel the same.

We’ll see where this goes, but so far, I like what I’m seeing. Over the weekend, I spent some time with David Wartofsky at Potomac Airfield. Hit hard by the Washington, D.C. government megastructure, Potomac almost ceased to exist as an operating airfield after 9/11. As a survival reaction, Wartofsky got a better view of the government security rabbit hole than most of us and he thinks TSA Pre is one of a number of initiatives TSA director John Pistole is launching as a genuine means of reducing the intrusion of aviation security. I sure hope so. The country is swimming in security and surveillance and aviation needs all the breaks it can get at every level.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.