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Proposals to spin off air traffic control from the FAA to be handled by a private agency charging user fees gained support on Wednesday in Washington, but it was still unclear if the plan has enough momentum to become reality. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a letter to Sen. John McCain that his department is “supportive of a possible privatization of ATC services and recognizes the potential risks.” The support from Mattis could be key, according to The Hill. “It’s a huge deal,” Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters. Concerns over security have long been cited by those who oppose the change, Shuster said. “And Secretary Mattis is saying we support it.” President Trump and major airlines also have expressed support for privatization.

The FAA’s infrastructure is increasingly obsolete, and its technology is from the last century, Shuster said at the hearing. “As a result, shocking amounts of tax dollars and time have been wasted over the last 35 years,” he said. General aviation advocates have long lobbied against privatization schemes, arguing that the proposed changes would help the airlines while hurting private flyers. “If the system is privatized, who will effectively control this monopoly, and for whose benefit?” asked Ed Bolen, president of NBAA, in a statement issued Wednesday. "Concerns over the answer to that question have been raised by aviation groups, organizations on the political left and right, members from both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate, mayors from across the country and a majority of American citizens.”

NATCA President Paul Rinaldi testified before the committee that his organization supports reform of the ATC system to ensure a “stable and predictable funding stream.” He added it’s key that the system continue to support “safety and efficiency as top priorities and continues to provide services to all segments of the aviation community, from commercial passenger carriers and cargo haulers to business jets and to general aviation, from the major airports to those in small communities and rural America.” Airline officials didn’t appear at the hearing, apparently in response to recent public-relations incidents. “Perhaps they recognize that the American people are not interested in giving more control to the airlines,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., a member of the panel, “when, between dragging a passenger off a plane and massive computer failures, they can't even get their own houses in order.”

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The NTSB issued its preliminary report this week on the fatal crash of an Icon A5 on May 8 in California. A witness, who was aboard a boat on Lake Berryessa, told investigators he saw the A5 flying over the lake about 30 to 50 feet above the water, at what seemed to be a low speed. The witness said the airplane passed by his position and entered a nearby cove, traveling in a northerly direction. The witness heard the engine "rev up" as the airplane drifted to the right side of the cove. Subsequently, the airplane pitched upward and entered a left turn, just before it traveled beyond the witness's field of view. The witness said he heard the sound of impact shortly after losing sight of the airplane. All major structural components of the airplane were located at the accident site, the NTSB said. Icon employees Jon Karkow and Cagri Sever were killed in the crash.

“This was a devastating personal loss for the Icon team,” said Kirk Hawkins, Icon’s CEO and founder, in a statement released this week. “We didn’t just lose employees; we lost family members. Jon and Cagri were both passionate engineers … We will miss them both tremendously, and our thoughts and prayers are with their families.” Icon said a flight data recorder was recovered from the accident aircraft, and NTSB investigators have reviewed it together with Icon engineers. The area where the crash occurred is known as Little Portuguese Canyon, and the terrain is steep and narrow, according to Icon. “We’re unsure why the plane flew into such a narrow canyon that had no outlet,” said Shane Sullivan, Icon’s director of flight. “We’re deeply saddened and fully committed to learning whatever we can from this tragic situation.”

Icon said it suspended all flight operations of the A5 fleet immediately after the accident, but flight operations have now resumed following the NTSB preliminary report. The wreckage from the accident flight has been recovered and moved to a secure location, the NTSB said.

Aurora Flight Sciences has successfully tested a robotic copilot in a Boeing 737 simulator, demonstrating that it can safely land the airplane on its own, the company said this week. The system is designed to function as a second pilot in a two-crew aircraft, enabling reduced crew operations while ensuring that aircraft performance and mission success are maintained or improved. Aurora is working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop the technology. DARPA has said their goal is to test “a tailorable, drop-in, removable kit that would promote the addition of high levels of automation into existing aircraft.” Aurora has previously tested the system in a Diamond DA42, Cessna 208 Caravan, UH-1 Iroquois and DHC-2 Beaver.

“Having successfully demonstrated on a variety of aircraft, ALIAS (Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System) has proven its versatile automated flight capabilities,” said John Wissler, Aurora’s vice president of research and development. “As we move towards fully automated flight from takeoff to landing, we can reliably say that we have developed an automation system that enables significant reduction of crew workload.” Aurora’s technology includes the use of in-cockpit machine vision, robotic components to actuate the flight controls, an advanced tablet-based user interface, speech recognition and synthesis, and a knowledge-acquisition process that facilitates transition of the automation system to another aircraft within a 30-day period. Aurora is also working on a version of the system without robotic actuation that instead aims to support the pilot by tracking aircraft physical, procedural and mission states, increasing safety by actively updating pilot situational awareness.

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A temporary mobile air traffic control tower will be operating this summer at Leesburg Executive Airport, in Virginia, requiring special procedures from pilots. Pilots flying both VFR and IFR will need to contact the tower, NBAA said this week. The tests, which are part of the airport’s Remote Control Tower experiment, will run June 5 through Aug.12, from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day, and then from 4 p.m. to midnight, Aug. 13 through Sept. 8. Pilots using the airport during the test period, even those who frequently fly into the airport, should pay close attention to Notams, said Heidi Williams, director of air traffic services for NBAA. Williams stressed that pilots should continue to follow the conditions of the JYO Maneuvering Area, which are detailed in the Special Flight Rules Area Notam.

The cost of implementing a remote tower “is significantly less than doing a full stand-up tower,” Williams said. Such remote facilities offer the “benefit of controlled traffic at airports that are unable to afford the construction and maintenance of a full, stand-alone tower.” Plus, it adds an enhanced layer of safety at what otherwise would be an uncontrolled airport, she said. The FAA is hosting a pilot town hall meeting on this issue at 7 p.m., May 25, at the airport.

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Garmin has introduced its first head-up display, the company announced on Wednesday. The GHD 2100 is designed for super-midsize, midsize and light business aircraft, and will launch on the new super-midsize Cessna Citation Longitude, with the G5000 integrated flight deck. The GHD is a compact, self-contained projection system with a large 30-degree by 24-degree field of view. It projects critical flight information in an easy-to-use format, the company said. Studies have shown that flying with a HUD adds a margin of safety when flying in reduced visibility, according to Garmin.

The GHD 2100 provides visual and aural cues to help prevent pilots from taking off and landing on a taxiway, on a runway that is too short or on the wrong runway, based on performance data entered during preflight. The system makes it easier for pilots to establish and maintain a stabilized approach. The GHD also enables the operator to qualify for Special Authorization Category I (CAT I) as well as Special Authorization Category II (CAT II) instrument approaches. Garmin has not announced a price.

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Aviation weather columns typically talk about hazards in terms of elements: “Watch the 0 to -20 degrees C layer for icing.” “Be cautious of wet, clear nights because of fog,” etc. We can always learn more from a change in perspective, and we can do so using surface charts from the Aviation Weather Center website. Using these charts we can get a better understanding of why weather hazards occur rather than how they develop. Let’s take a look at the sample chart above and break down all the patterns that are going on.

A—Near the Frontal Low

There’s a frontal low over Lake Erie at point A, bringing unsavory flying weather. This low is powered by the thermal contrast between the cold air mass over Canada and the warm air mass streaming northward from the Carolinas. This is called a “frontal” or “baroclinic” low.

Even after the low pressure area departs, a broad band of poor weather trails the low, producing a “wraparound” zone hundreds of miles wide. As it passes from west to east, precipitation continues or even intensifies, but gradually dissipates and transitions to showers. There is also a change from low overcast ceilings to scattered to broken ceilings, and from poor visibility to excellent visibility. On this map it’s safe to assume Michigan is under the influence of some of the wraparound, but there’s a good bet that at least some of the airports there, perhaps in the southwest, are reporting VMC.

B—Near the Frontal High

Frontal highs over the northern Plains normally originate from the coldest regions of Canada with strong radiational cooling. These highs sink southeastward and eventually move across the East Coast into the Atlantic. Around the high we get excellent flying conditions. But strong radiational cooling takes place at night. If there is residual ground moisture, be alert to the possibility of radiation fog by dawn.

C—Blustery Behind Cold Front

Immediately behind the cold front, there’s a strong pressure gradient, indicated by the tight packing of the isobar lines, and cold air is advecting in from the north. The cold air is rapidly modifying as it surges south over the warm ground, and this destabilizes it. The result is gusty winds, low-level turbulence, excellent visibility, and if there’s enough moisture, perhaps some showery conditions.

Note that the isobars are packed close together, which identifies windy conditions. This is an area on the weather map where crosswind limits may be a factor. VMC will normally prevail if you’re at least a couple of hundred miles behind the frontal system.

D—Ahead of the Warm Front

In the 1980 film Airplane!, the legendary Captain Oveur announced, “Fog has closed down everything this side of the mountains,” as the cast of characters struggled toward Chicago through thunderstorms. The scriptwriters almost perfectly painted the kind of grim situation that exists across a broad area north of a warm front. Indeed the bulk of IMC weather and hazardous icing conditions occur in this zone, along with a large share of the aviation accidents.

In general, if you don’t have a good TAF or a good briefing to rely on, this area is to be avoided, because almost every hazard in the AIM lurks here. Tropical moisture and overrunning of the warm front means extensive lift and lots of precipitation, and the cool low levels promise a ripe environment for fog. Your best alternates will be found either south in the warm sector or to the north away from the strongest lift. East or westward directions in most cases just bring you into more of the soup.

E—A Textbook Warm Sector

A warm sector is the forecasting term for whatever exists equatorward of the warm and cold fronts. Normally this region is comprised of a tropical air mass that extends from the surface to the middle or the top of the troposphere. The weather here is dominated mostly by diurnal heating, with cumulus clouds and scattered showers during the afternoon and scattered areas of fog in the morning.

Aside from light to moderate turbulence during the afternoon, there are normally no flying hazards here except within showers and thunderstorms, where all the rules about thunderstorm flying apply. Have fun and get some hours in.

F—Subtropical Weather

Springtime is fairly calm in Florida. Like Virginia, the region can rightly be considered under the influence of a warm sector. This warm sector extends to the tropopause. A persistent southeasterly flow with rich tropical moisture dominates the region with widespread VMC.

Daytime hours are characterized by the development of cumuliform clouds, local sea breezes and lake breezes that move inland, and scattered showers along these boundaries as well as old stagnant boundaries from the previous day. IMC may occur in this showery weather but the impact is brief. Nighttime hours are also mostly VMC, but fog and stratus may occasionally develop from residual ground moisture.

G—Great Plains Warm Sectors

Again, we’re equatorward of all the fronts. Just like in the case of Virginia and Florida, the warm sector is dominated mostly by tropical air, lots of cumuliform clouds, warm temperatures, and low densities. However in an active spring pattern, the tropical air over the Great Plains is usually shallow—only reaching an altitude of several thousand feet. Relatively warm, dry air with excellent visibility lies above. This air originates from the desert southwest and offers excellent flying conditions and 100-mile visibility, though when powerful weather systems depart the Rockies, dust from west Texas may infiltrate this layer.

Down below, the tropical air is shallow but is frequently IMC in the mornings. In an active weather pattern, there will be a strong low-level jet in the upper portions of the tropical air, with winds often exceeding 50 knots with a risk of low-level wind shear. During the afternoon ceilings and visibilities lift and the low-level jet weakens. Widespread thunderstorms often move through the warm sector every several days, providing a couple of days of excellent VMC weather before the warm sector pattern returns.

H—VMC Behind the Dryline

The chart shows a dashed line across west Texas, suggesting a pressure trough. But during the spring, this same marking often correlates to a dryline, which separates warm tropical air from dry desert air to the west. The dryline itself is a hotspot for storm development, but what happens out west? Extensive VMC and good visibility, but the atmosphere is unstable and gusty southwest winds are common during the afternoon. Nighttime flying is excellent, but be on guard as sometimes the dryline will recede westward to terminals like AMA, MAF, and LBB and produce nighttime storms.

I—Warm Advection Zone

While a frontal high mostly represents a blob of cold air sinking south, the clockwise pattern of winds means that its western periphery is bringing warm air northward. Much of this warm air actually overruns the front to the south and moves across Kansas and Nebraska at altitudes of 5000 to 10,000 feet.

This overrunning pattern and the upslope flow causes deterioration of ceilings and visibilities, which means terminals in this pattern may be IMC at night and marginal VMC during the day. Also be on your guard for embedded showers and thunderstorms when there is widespread overcast in this pattern.

J—Upslope Flow Problems

Look at that long band of isobars extending from eastern Colorado to Kansas. This represents a broad corridor of southeasterly flow. This is a frequent pattern during the spring, because cold highs move southward through the Great Plains with great regularity. This places the high plains of Colorado, Wyoming, and western Kansas and Nebraska under the influence of cool, moist southeasterly flow. But this actually advects vast amounts of tropical moisture into the high and dry regions of Denver and Cheyenne.

The effect is even further compounded when there are strong westerly jet stream winds lying over Colorado. This helps establish a strong lee-side trough, further amplifying the pressure gradient between the cold high pressure area out east and the low pressures in the Denver and Colorado Springs area.

What does an upslope flow situation mean? First off, you can count on IMC or marginal VMC in western parts of Kansas and Nebraska. Second, if this upslope flow reaches the Front Range of Colorado, you can expect strong thunderstorms by late afternoon at terminals like PUB, COS, DEN, and CYS, which then tend to march eastward overnight in the form of a large squall line. If you’re heading for these destinations in a pattern like this, your best alternates will often be found to the south, away from the conveyor belt of moisture. Pueblo or Trinidad is likely to be in good shape.

You can identify when an upslope pattern exists by confirming southeast winds and looking at dewpoint temperatures across eastern Colorado and the Nebraska Panhandle. Dewpoints exceeding 10 degrees C during the spring months are a good sign that upslope flow may be occurring.

K—A Low in the Great Basin

Quite often you’ll see a low pressure area over Nevada, California or Arizona during the spring months, but there are no fronts and no bad weather. The fact that there are no fronts means that the low is not being fueled by temperature contrasts, so what’s going on?

This is likely a “warm core low” or “thermal low” that is being driven mostly by clear skies, surface heating, and perhaps in this case, lee-side troughing downstream from the Sierra Nevada range. It begins appearing regularly on surface charts around March and becomes especially prominent during the warm season.

Its normal location is southwest Arizona but depending on the pattern it may shift into Nevada or eastern California, and during the summer a trough often extends into the San Joaquin Valley. It should be noted that a deep low with closed contours is common over Arizona from May to September but is rare over Nevada and Utah, so when you see such a low, double-check, because it may actually be associated with a surface front or an upper-level low.

Assuming you have a thermal low, flying weather will be good, with plenty of VMC, but the atmosphere is unstable, so you can expect some light to moderate chop during the afternoon. Problems don’t usually set in until summer when moisture begins infiltrating Arizona, Nevada, and Utah from the south. This produces afternoon thunderstorms that begin mostly over mountains and then expand out into the valleys.

L—Pacific High Influence

During the spring, the semipermanent North Pacific high off the west coast expands and strengthens, bringing cool westerly flow to much of California. This high also blocks frontal systems, keeping them at bay further north in Washington and British Columbia. California also becomes influenced by the warm core low to the east.

If you put this together, you can see that there is an enhanced tendency for air to flow west-to-east, or more properly, northwest-to-southeast across California during the spring months. This means that coastal stratus will have more of an impact on coastal locations and even occasionally spread inland across the Bay Area and Los Angeles. When you see pressure contours stacked along the California coast as you see here, keep tabs on the coastal stratus and plan on having an alternate located further inland.

M—Canadian Outbreak

During the warm season, Canada becomes the hot spot for frontal systems. They may not show up on your typical United States weather maps, but in April and May the patterns are still cool enough to favor them sinking southeastward into the United States. So if you’re flying in the northern Plains, nearly all of your weather changes will be coming from Alberta, British Columbia, and Washington.

Point M is located south of the surface low, so this spot will experience VMC, dry, gusty winds, and some light to moderate chop. Along and north of the front is where you will find most of the visibility and ceiling problems.

N—Where It Gets Serious

We already know from Point A that the weather will remain in poor shape behind the low pressure area due to the presence of wraparound precipitation and clouds. But take a look at the terrain: the Canadian Rocky Mountains cut through this location, and the isobars indicate northeasterly winds. This sets the stage for very strong upslope flow.

In a situation like this, you can count on airports in the foothills and in the mountains to be in bad shape. The normal frontal circulations amplified by strong upslope flow will produce heavy precipitation and widespread low ceilings. Even worse, this area is often near the upper-level low trailing the surface system, which means unstable air and showery weather. If you’re flying toward a zone like this, Godspeed. You will want to have some carefully-selected alternates to the west or northwest.

Tim Vasquez is a professional meteorologist in Palestine, Texas. See his website at www.weathergraphics.com. He’ll gladly exchange some of his perspective for some of yours. Any pilots in east Texas want some weather smarts?

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of IFR magazine.

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With the potential banning of laptops from airliner cabins under hot debate in Europe this week, I find myself once again recoiling at how people describe their thinking on this topic. Not to mention other risk-related issues. Notice I did not say “safety-related.”

I saw a quote go pixeling by in which the speaker said she was OK with the ban because “it keeps us safe.” Another suggested that laptops are OK in the cabin, if “they’re safe.” Well, they’re not safe. It’s quite simple. The batteries in them can and have blown up and any one of the more than 4 million passengers who board airliners daily can wig out and beat a seatmate senseless, using a laptop as a cudgel, one presumes. The former has happened. The only reason to believe that the latter won’t is because it hasn’t happened yet and United doesn’t issue laptops to its gate agents.

I don’t mean this discussion to be about banning laptops, because reasonable people can disagree about its efficacy and consequences. I mean it to be about the notion of thinking about safety or “being safe.” Safety is many things, but one of them is a self-delusion. You might, for example, say that TSA “has kept us safe” because there haven’t been any significant aviation-related terrorist events since 9/11 and vanishingly few outside of aviation. You could just as well credit TSA with preventing mad cows from stampeding through supermarkets and have a statement that’s just as credible. (Okay, so mad cows can’t really run, but you get the point.)

Whenever I see someone use the phrase “safe,” I can’t help but think I’m looking at someone incapable of other than binary thinking. It’s either safe or it isn’t. There’s no gray area; no sliding scale. But in aviation, what we’ve come to regard as risk awareness is one sliding-scale tradeoff after another. We’ll fly on a gusty day if the wind is down the runway, but reconsider with a 30-degree component. We might fly day IFR under 500-foot ceilings, but not at night. Maybe we’ll go in forecast ice if we know the tops are at 4000 feet and so on. There are so many variables in risk awareness that I’ve never been a fan of personal minimums, but that’s a blog for another day.

So, as should be obvious by now, I’m on a personal crusade to encourage people to use language that gets them thinking not about safety, but about ranked or relative risk. When you’ve reached a happy accommodation with whatever variables give you the night sweats, you can call that safety, although I’d call it acceptable risk.

I saw a nice quote that’s a good logical word test for this. It came from George Robotham, a mine safety expert: “If you want to work out what a safety displacement activity is, just take it out of the equation and see if it makes any difference. If there’s no difference then whatever that activity is, it’s probably a waste of time.” 

Apply that to the laptop issue or any other risk ranking and see how it works. Say, for instance, you want to remove any kind of airline pre-board screening. Would it make a difference? I daresay it would, so even though it’s not as effective as we might like, I think it’s effective enough. Stick it on something else, like a flight review. Would removing a flight review make a difference? My guess is yes, since it’s the only minimal training many of us get. Third Class medical? Go ahead and fall to the floor in convulsions of laughter.

Drone Jumping

While we’re talking about risk ranking, this week’s first skydive from a drone appears to be a good real-world example. For those of you who might ask why do this at all, it’s no different than any other kind of flight-related activity. Why fly balloons, have airshows or fly around the world in a two-person airplane in 9 days, 3 minutes and 44 seconds?

Someone will ask me if I’d do a jump like that and the answer is no, but not for the reason you think. It was made from an altitude of 1000 feet and so the jumper—wisely—used a BASE rig, a fast-opening canopy intended for jumping off low-elevation towers, buildings and cliffs. Those things open—right now—and they kinda hurt. My neck and shoulders are stressed enough with regular skydives, thanks. (See the video at 1:11 to see the opening snatch. Ouch.)

Further to risk mitigation, they had the drone pick up the jumper atop a 500-foot tower. I’m going to guess they did that because a drone lifting a person intending to land with a parachute has a sort of dead man zone below 300 feet or so where, if something goes awry, you’d have no options. Moreover, the downdraft from a drone that big is surprisingly nasty and would likely mess up a canopy opening that you needed to have happen yesterday. Starting from the tower, the option is built in because people do BASE jumps from 500 feet all the time.

At first, I thought it would be better to have a harness or at least a stirrup, but I can see the sense of not doing that. The jumper didn’t have to hang from the trapeze very long and the last thing you want in something this edgy is an unforeseen entanglement.

And no, none of this is “safe.” It may have involved laptops, however.

Most people think of drones as annoying little buzzing quadcopters. Don't say that to the Griff Aviation Guardian, a 160-pound working drone that can lift its own weight and then some. At the AUVSI Xponential show in Dallas, Griff was showing a prototype and AVweb's Paul Bertorelli shot a video describing it.

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Picture of the Week

Beautiful skies are the theme this week but Rusty Eichorn got the winner in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Rusty has won before and we only got three usable entries this week. Flying season is here. Send us your best photos.

Rare is the pilot attending a safety seminar who, at some point, doesn't wake up thinking, "Wow! Really?" While you should remain alert in training, you'll feel smug doing so when you ace this quiz.

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