Jun 27 2010

From Checklist to Checkmatrix

I always had a thing about the checklists. With my IT and management background they just did not look right, ever. Bunch of ripped-off pieces of processes, flight conditions and sometimes barely related details packed together in a free-form way…

Each flying club I have been to, had its own flavor of checklists – strongly enforced and mandatory to use. Each private plane owner I know had his own checklist – based on his knowledge, sometimes the POH, and always the owner’s personal flight experience. Both flying clubs and private owners were usually extremely proud of their checklists and did not accept any criticism in regard.

Checklists from the POH are expected to be good – they were created by the same people who built the airplane itself – but those checklists are quite outdated and not corresponding to the modern flight environment or safety standards. To add to this deficiency, custom checklists frequently include certain airfield-specific information – and the POH checklists are addressed to some abstract ‘GA pilots’ audience which just doesn’t exist in the real life.

Probably the most annoying thing about all those basement-developed “custom checklists” is their constant push-back to “safety” or if not, liability for not using. I’ve seen the weirdest requirements, like “check the gear” in the non-retractable planes, or “lean the mixture for the take-off”, directly contradicting to the actual construction of the aircrafts and engines! That has nothing to do with safety and is just plain stupid, but enforced under the same premises of “If you are flying my plane, do as I say”. Totally dumb, but the whole modern aviation is plagued by those carrot and stick of safety and liability, used as a lever to pursue any mean within it.

And the funniest thing is that the actions to perform are reasonably simple! The conditions to check are rather obvious, too. Think about it: Process consists of actions. Actions are based on certain conditions and change them. Learn how to do something, understand the consequences of the actions performed, and here you are – of all the fancy garbage in the checklist you will probably need only the final conditions to validate, and maybe a dozen of numbers to memorize. Rest would be the actions sequence, which should be simply trained through the practice.

That simple of the approach somehow scares the people responsible for the flight training. It is for that reason we end up with those multi-page stacks of small-letter checklists in the school or rental planes cockpit. You look at it and see a Cessna. You glance at the checklist and think it’s a Boeing. Than that poor student tries to keep all the crap in his head with the engine roaring and instructor yelling at him, while still somehow following the checklist… Talk about safety, yeah.

Mind you, it is obviously good to have a brief cheat-sheet, and a placard with numbers, and a scheme of key conditions to check! There are zillions of distractions in the aircraft cockpit, and the pilot does need to check everything before proceeding to the next portion of flight. Taking in account that it happens in the air, obviously, there might be no time to pull the stuff out of the human memory and have it perfect and handy.

So some sort of a checklist is actually needed, but why should that be a list? Each flight breaks down nicely to a number of phases – such as take-off, or taxi, or engine shutdown. Attention of the pilot is always distributed between the same things – engine, airframe, aircraft systems, etc. So that’s clearly a matrix, not a list!

If we relax our mind and see the obvious, things will became progressively more clear and easy to understand and handle. Just follow the same trained course of actions, distribute your attention in a same logical sequence, keep the crucial numbers in your memory and double-check yourself by validating that all of the mandatory conditions were completed. Done? Keep on flying.

Such approach is flexible – you can expand columns and rows of the matrix, providing any detail level you need. I have created a sample one, which applies to the aircraft I am flying in real life (gliders, ultralights, homebuilts and GA planes). No doubts anyone can do the same for the other machines he is familiar with – the idea is the same.

Just do not get too deep into the details, respect your brain and always have a clear picture of what are you working with. Is it a process, a sequence, an action, a condition, or a number to remember? Break things down and arrange them as a system – this will make your mind soar effortlessly and the stupid mess of the current checklists will became obvious to you, as it is to me or any other system-oriented thinking person.

Idiot needs the step-by-step instructions and detalization, but pilots should be smart. Respect yourself, remove the clutter from your cabin and give “checkmatrix” a chance! Here is a raw sample to play with – not for a real life usage, but hope it illustrates the concept clear enough.

Jun 19 2010

Taking Merlin for a Spin

Well, in fact, there was no spinning today – but lots of incredibly fun upper airwork! Simple set of the basic maneuvers produced an enduring smile on my face; this little Merlin EZ is just a beauty of an airplane…

We started from a couple of normal circuits and I immediately felt like even a week delay is good enough to became less sharp when operating a taildragger. Usual “dance on the pedals”, which is supposed to be all but invisible, grew out of proportion during the first take off and landing – only the third touch and go was a nice smooth three-pointer. Same effect exists on any airplane, it is just more pronounced on those who require additional attention.

Then we went to an improvised “practice area” next to the river and the upper airwork started – just about 1500 feet off the ground. This would scare me enough in Cessna, but for Merlin there is never “too low”.

Power on stall… well, it wasn’t. If you coordinate and have enough power, the plane just hangs on the prop and softly, controllably mushes at about 30 mph indicated. If you remove the power, it politely lowers the nose. If you keep the stick all the way back, it tries to mush and then again nicely drop the nose to the horizon. With more power the “break” is more pronounced, I just have trouble calling it an actual stall break.

Uncoordinated stalls were absolutely the same, with careful, obvious and slow wing drop – just about 15-20 degrees, not more. And it was so slow, so completely understandable, that the leg just moves to “step on the raising wing” all by itself, which returns us to a previously described mush.

Power off, nose down, pull on the stick and step on the inner pedal. No tendency to tuck the wing under, the plane just don’t want! The turn at about 40 mph is ridiculously tight, but it is impossible to get a wing drop or stall break without power – so the plane simply turns…

Power on, climbing back, let’s play with a slow flight. No stall horns, no specifically pronounced buffet, it is just a game of throttle and stick. Balancing between adding the power and pulling back on the stick I hang it on the prop at about 40 mph. Right turn is slow and requires more power to maintain the altitude; left turn is much faster with about 15% less power needed. Full throttle – we climb, rather fast. Cut it off, keep the wings from dropping, and we mush back. Beautiful!

Playing with sideslips – one more surprise, like if it wasn’t enough… I smoothly step on the pedal all the way, and the plane starts flying sideways! Barely any stick is needed to keep the wings level, and a bit more – to keep the nose down, but the rudder is so effective that even half way to the stop it literally turns the plane, like a boat! This is so silly, and took me another attempt to get a “real” sideslip with barely a bit of pedal and almost nothing on the stick. We still fly with the nose about 25 degrees sideways, plane loses altitude, but nothing interesting – it is not even remotely “falling out of the skies”, as it supposed to be. Add the power and push the rudder – and you can pretty much turn the plane tail forward!

After all that, we played a little bit with curved approach (runway beginning is cut between the trees, so you have a nicely waving green wall on the left and some farmer buildings on the right), wheel landing, was all fun, but the stall characteristics of this plane just left me speechless. I am not at all surprised there is barely a couple of stall/spin accidents on this type in the NTSB database, one must be a ridiculously inaccurate pilot to make this little machine misbehave…

Merlin EZ

Merlin EZ

Jun 14 2010

Gliders, Dream and Lie

There is nothing like soaring. All other forms of aviation are crude – they spend lots of energy, they are noisy, they smell like everything from filthy rental cockpits to avgas – but not the sky they are thrusting through. Airplanes could be compared to gliders as motorboats to the yachts.

I always loved the idea of soaring in the sky, making ascending currents of air silently lift me up, accelerating without any sound except for the wings cutting through the air, looking to the world around from that long and hi-tech cockpit of an aircraft that weights less than some motorcycles…

When that dream finally came true, surprisingly, it still kept all the witchcraft intact! Flying the aeroplanes at some point becomes a work. It is utterly difficult to find the way of going through the controlled airspaces and still enjoying the magic of flight. But soaring retains the miracle which never ends.

I remember my very first flight in the basic glider. It happened during the fifth or sixth attempt of the “fast taxi”, when the torque is pulling a glider fast enough to make the controls work, yet slow enough to prevent a take-off. I hated that, I wanted to leave the ground and dive into the sky – but instead my bumping and jerking machine was painfully swaying through those hundred yards of boredom.

And then the moment of truth happened. That big guy controlling the torque was apparently so bored with my attempts to keep the wings level and stop wandering from side to side, that he accelerated his cable-puller a bit more then necessary – and I took off! Only to realize that the power was reset and the cable disengaged from the glider – leaving me without any thrust in a climbing attitude, dangerously close to the ground.

From the 14-years old pilot prospective, it was all simple. I thought:

–        “Burying the nose into the ground, as that jerk instructor told me to do, is wrong. It is very hard to maintain the directional control that way. Let me lift the nose and balance the glider on its only wheel…”

–        “Hey, it works – it works! So much easier to control it this way!”

–        “Aha, the ground is somehow going down… So am I… Am I… Flying?! Me! I am flying!!!”

–        “No airspeed. Nose down. Descending.”

–        “The ground is approaching, nose up. Not enough airspeed but I will do a cushion.”

[bum-crack, hrsh-shk-shk-shk-shk…]

–        “I’ve landed… Ha-ha… Uhh… Something cracked; it could not be by any mean soft…”

And that was it – my incredible first flight. I haven’t been to the air even as a passenger before, still I flew my first solo right away. It still surprises me how calm and smart I was at that moment – I could not even think about myself being so cool!

Then there was lots of fighting for a privilege to fly, which I was understanding as my right. And I have lost that battle and was banned from flying for a long time. But my eventual return to the world of rudder and stick was – surprise! – through flying the gliders, again.

It was back in Argentina, glider flights were the cheapest aviation thing available, and even though for the local authorities I was still a discard, that dream of slicing through the air on those long and flexible wings was definitely present, surrounding me. In total I’ve made seven flights, total time probably about four hours. Nevertheless, the magic of soaring was there! Same as in the childhood book, I was spiraling up to the clouds and going from stall to Vne in seconds…

Economic crisis in the beginning of the century effectively killed my flying, and I was only able to return to gliding after making it to Canada and achieving a PPL. To the following horror and pain, I realized that whatever used to be cheap and beautiful sport remained stunning, but become prohibitively expensive. Prices in a soaring clubs, scarcely spotted around Canada, are soaring higher that their gliders, and not good even for the joke.

I mean, when you calculate the cost of aero-towing the glider for fifteen minutes, it should not be possibly as expensive as flying a rental aircraft for an hour. But it is. And those “towing tickets” sound even more ridiculous, taking in account that to start spending your money on them you are supposed to buy this soaring association membership and that insurance, and also pay half a thousand bucks for some “club membership”… Overall, sucks. I tried a couple of places, but they are all the same. Only Air Cadets somehow have that differently, but I am not an Air Cadet.

Whatever was an open road to the skies for countless thousands of young pilots back in 30s, or a popular aerial fun all the way through the 50s and 60s is now a rich guys’ timewaste. Yes, most of them barely have skill to go safely even through the basic 300 km triangle, but at least they have enough money for all those business-smart wallet killers imposed by the gliding club owners.

And there is no surprise most of the records in this sport were either established like forty years back, or – if recently – by some rarely talented money bags, such as Steve Fosset. Gliders were yachts of the air aerodynamically, now they are the yachts of the air financially, too. So stupid…

I am still dreaming about some sort of the old-style motorglider taking off from the turf runway of some homebuilders’ airport. Just a privately owned piece of personal joy! But that is remote – and in any case I will prefer to spend money on something more practical, like a “normal” airplane. It would be easier to cope with the weather, or take friends for a ride.

But still, that memory of the wildly hissing air, incredibly steep climbing turns, woop-wooping variometer and the sun dancing around me in circles is so alive, so attractive… Probably I can’t help but go and pay for yet another “introductory flight” in some soaring club. Just for the crazy magic of life that only could be felt when flying a glider.

Schleicher ASK 21

Schleicher ASK 21