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Mar 8 2015

Flight Plans Shyness

Transport Canada requirements aside, in a real world of private flying, filing of a flight plan is a fairly rare occurrence. Some people do that regularly and almost religiously, others do that occasionally, but apparently most of the private pilots (and the whole ultralight crowd overshadowing them massively) never bother.

Why so? Isn’t it good to have a caring government eye watching you flying, ever so ready to lend a helpful hand if you are in trouble?

Apparently, most people don’t think so.

And there is certain logic in their reluctance. For example:

Flight plan includes estimated time of arrival. Are most of the people that confident as to estimation of their time on route so as to be 100% sure in the exact time? Obviously not – as this type of estimates requires solid navigation skills by pilotage, which most of the people only use during their student pilot days – and replace with GPS herding as soon as they can.

Similarly, this precise timing calls for airport-like schedule following – as you absolutely must take off and fly your waypoints as planned. But what if you want to double-check your plane condition during preflight? Or heard some weird noise while running up the engine? Or a buddy stopped by your hangar and wanted to chat, effectively delaying your departure by solid twenty minutes?

All that breaks your fragile planning schedule from the very beginning!

And then, while in the air – how many of us actually stuff the trusty E6B under their butt and regularly measure the ground speed while passing the checkpoints? C’mon, don’t lie – most of you don’t even remember how to do that since, again, our flight school days! GPS is more reliable in that sense, but how many of us, again, are comfortable dialing the right frequency (which, by the way?) and giving the flight service (what’s the name of these guys?) an advisory on your flight plan amendment, while in the air?

Radio which are you going to tell that your arrival at Bob’s Crooked Leg Airfield is delayed by an estimate of 17 minutes? Do you know if they’d actually listen? Would that surely prevent sending a Hercules to search for your plane if you arrive in 18 minutes instead?

Questions, questions…

And the outcome of such uncertainty is obvious – people simply go flying without flight planning pains. No schedule – you can spend any amount of time you want doing whatever you wish… Fun! No radio calls talking to authorities and having your skills challenged… Joy!

Nothing will happen anyways, right? I mean, unless you’re flying a century-old transport hulk over some serious arctic ice, do you really expect to get lost in the wilderness, hiding from bears and bitter cold inside the wreck of your airplane, wounded and bleeding?

Unlikely, I’d guess.

Mind you, that’s again – as almost everything in aviation! – about decision making. And decision making is almost always about “human factor”. And human factor is based on your own personality traits, thus entirely diverse and unreliable.

My personal suggestion would be to keep your teeth sharp – being able to file the plan and fly as planned. Have enough discipline to get in the air without unnecessary delays, and be able to communicate your trouble if required. I find this type of “always learning” activity improving my self-esteem.

Most people go for self-entitlement, though – relieving themselves from a burden of self-improvement, and ending up in the air with no flight plans, and a very remote notion on whom to call if in trouble. And trouble they often get, as that’s exact the type of attitude that’s spawning them.

So many of us – being quietly conscious of their true capabilities – fortunately chose to remain on the ground. Coming to the hangar for some important work like wiping the windshield and chatting with buddies about past adventures. That’s why there are often old couches and chairs in each hangar – you know, to “socialize” rather than fly.

And frankly, I can only endorse such behavior. Those who can’t fly shouldn’t try. Their true fear may be that they can’t land – which may be an absolutely valid expectation – yet reality being that they won’t be able to find their way back to their own airport from five miles apart, if not for GPS. Whatever keeps them grounded, be it blessed.

Those who are planning to get up, though, should rather be able to plan in advance. Or become short-living news one day.

Apr 11 2013

Buying an Airplane in Canada, Part 4: Delivery

Let’s relax and imagine that all our troubles are left behind – here’s an airplane you love, its condition is good enough to fly right away or you can fix it easily, there’s no legal scum hanging off the wings, and the seller made every attempt to understand and cover your extra expenses.

Now the only remaining thing is – how to bring your airplane to the new home and make it yours officially?

If you’ve bought a plane in Canada, and it’s a flyable aircraft, ready to go – hop in and fly home. Plan the route in advance, book the hotels if you’d need to stay overnight, and don’t forget to make the very first legs short! You may even wish to shoot a couple of touch and goes before attempting to fly away. That’s especially true if the machine is new to you. Getting some dual time in the type prior to delivery would help, but even then – different rigging and pilot’s lack of experience will count.

If you have a friend who’s experienced enough in flying this particular type, do not hesitate a second in asking him to help you, acting as a safety pilot. You obviously insured the machine since the day of purchase, right? And this insurance allows other people to fly it, if necessary? Please figure that out well in advance – the last thing you want is to get a stupid mishap somewhere in the middle of your trip back home, leaving you with damaged airplane, hurt relationships with the buddy, and unclear way of paying for damages – that’s hoping that no one was hurt…

If the plane is in Canada but could not be flown to a new base (for example, it’s a brand-new homebuilt restricted by 25 miles rule, or a project to be completed, or a damaged plane requiring fix before getting in the air), you’ll need to truck it to its new base.

In my experience, a 22 foot sled-carrying flatbed trailer resulted to be an excellent mean of ground transportation for a non-flyable airplane. It is wide and long enough to get any partially disassembled light aircraft on top of it. The platform sits high above the wheels, minimizing damage from debris flying under the wheels of your truck and other cars. Yet, it is easily maneuverable with a bit of practice, and rental is cheap.

Loading the plane on that platform and taking it back may be quite a handful! I’ve used tractors and some body work to get bits and pieces on and off the trailer. Bring a good set of ratchets, ropes, tape, something soft with lots of friction (carpet pad works surprisingly well!) Maybe you’ll need some sort of wooden structure to hold different parts in the right position, keeping them safe from movement and damage… That’s a project on its own, don’t under-estimate it.

While towing that precious trailer, be very careful about all the vehicles passing you – there’d be flying junk and waves of compressed air hitting your fragile cargo. Getting through the gas pumps would be another challenge – though compensated by amusement and excited questions from the people around.

Planes don’t like rain, so either ensure the weather is good, or cover the plane overnight with a tarp. Driving a plane covered with a tarp is not recommended, though, as it’d inevitably get loose – smacking and flapping against your plane mercilessly!

Covered trailer may be an even better option, but the size of such construction will be absolutely humongous, requiring a powerful tow truck and complicating maneuvering to get the disassembled plane in and out even more – probably beyond the average drivers’ capabilities, license, and experience.

Towing the plane from the States is no different, except that you’ll get certain attention from the border service – so be prepared for the long talks. Obviously, importation would include “freezing” your cargo until the fees are paid – so please triple-check in advance how would that be handled at your point of entry.

And ferrying the plane from States is also tricky.

You can, obviously, get a temporary Canadian registration, and special ferry permits, and tons of other slow and expensive paperwork – but your best bet would be in convincing the seller to fly this plane for you. Let him bring it to Canada, with him as PIC, under original US registration and insurance, and land at your home airport. Then give him money, airline ticket home, maybe a good dinner, and drive him to the nearest international airport.

That’d be the dream, but only maybe 1 out of 20-25 sellers I was dealing with were willing even to discuss such a journey. Most of them also requested paying them substantial ferry expenses, running around couple thousand dollars for a medium-length trip – you’ve kept that in mind when looking for your dream airplane and working down the asking price, right?

Oh, and also many a seller would refuse to fly outside unless you pay the whole amount upfront. Even if you’ll incur risk to get that mishap in the middle of the road, sitting on some American farmer’s field with your damaged or destroyed plane, hopefully not injured pilot and passenger, and effectively wasted purchase money – which your insurance company may or may not pay you back… partially. That after a long, long, long investigation.

And your plane would effectively be grounded until Canadian registration is completed – with previous Transport Canada inspection and approval, Border Agency notified, all taxes and fees paid… That’s a lot of hassle, make no mistake. Papers will move slowly, you’d get your share of “wait for 90 days, and call us if there’s no news” promises – which will actually require reminders and pushing here and there well beyond the 90 days period.

There are plenty of horror stories about non-approved equipment that should’ve been either removed or re-certified in Canada. These stories exist for a reason – bureaucracy is stunning, managing to both miss critical items, and destroy your ass with minor things growing out of proportion.

That’s why, though most of Canadian airplanes are actually built in US and imported at some point, ridiculous Canadian aviation market still exist – even with its insane prices and uncomfortable legal procedures it may be still cheaper, or at least easier, to buy inside the country than bring from the South. New foreign aircraft are excluded from many a hassle, but this comes with a millionaire price tag.

But let’s think positive! Imagine that you’ve successfully purchased and delivered the airplane – here it is, sitting in front of the hangar, smiling at you. Personally, I felt a great deal of tiredness and relief, mixed with very limited amount of childish joy when that occurred to me – but hope you’ll do better.

Just be careful, and have fun!

Mar 10 2013

Buying an Airplane in Canada, Part 3: Negotiations

After a few months spent, you should be already well versed in the aviation owners’ lingo, can easily spot the runout engines and rusty airframes, are not scared by homebuilts and owner-maintained aircraft, and have a fairly short but solid wish list of the planes-to-have on your mind.

You’ve been chatting with the vendors on the phone and maybe even flew some of their planes dual, and these birds appear to be overall ok, except for the price asked.

Look, all these vendors used to be buyers. They’ve made their share of mistakes and purchased something that did not work for them in the long run – but not before they either ruined the plane by incompetence, or wasted tons of money attempting to fix the consequences of mishandling. Maybe you were lucky to stumble across a really capable and knowing owner selling due to some unrelated reasons, but that should be considered as sheer luck.

So when buying something another person doesn’t wish to keep, be fierce.

Stay nice and smile, but don’t forget to question every little thing. Why was this plane on the market for so long? Why, despite all that money invested, the owner doesn’t want it anymore? How expensive was the maintenance, and due to which pain-points? How much would you have to spend to bring this bird home and make it fly?

There are a lot of people who’d stay firm alleging that their airplane “needs nothing”, or otherwise attempt to downplay the obvious gaps detected. Well, leave them on the market for some time more – until they either soften a bit, or be lucky sell their stuff tricking someone less cautious.

Have you flown the plane dual with the seller? That could be a scary experience on its own right, but if you survive, it can bring legitimate opportunities to talk about the overstressed gear and chipped prop, if not the busted wing edges. The worst is the pilot, the better he thinks about himself – but after you’ve flown with him you’d know better.

You may have heard a statement about the plane “always hangared” – but Internet remembers everything, so mention these photos of 1987 where the plane is posing on far corner tie-downs, covered with tall grass – wouldn’t that be a valid reason to slash the asking price?

Fabric in “excellent condition, recovered in ‘poly-reu-than’ 40 years ago by an AME” – is it really that good? Forget about the punch test joke, think how would it feel if the ancient rotten rag would start separating in flight, while your woman or your kid is sitting next to you… still feel like giving it a shot? Or would rather include a punishing recovery and repaint requirement as a reason to cut down the asking price?

Talking about people lying, don’t forget the legal details. Ownership is a big story, as Transport Canada requires a bill of sale to be signed by the same person to which an aircraft is registered. I’ve faced dozens of cases when a nice otherwise sale fell through because at the last moment we’ve “discovered” that a guy who’s selling the plane had it registered to some other person elsewhere (in two occasions the actual owners were not human, but legal entities – a museum and a private company).

So be very meticulous and particulars about the paperwork – you’ll notice that many a vendor would sound easy and relaxed about it, especially folks from rural areas, but that doesn’t mean you are not going to step on a mine when the airplane would become your own, and government folks will come for you to pay for the previous owner’s negligence.

Sometimes the job may just sound fishy – during the actual face to face talk the owner would skip details, push too much on the emotions, etc. That may feel intuitive, and you should trust your intuition – too much excitement can easily be a cover-up attempt. Journey logs don’t lie, though they still can be missing lots of important details. Just look at the whole picture – the plane, the documents, and the owner – are they all an open book to you, with no questions to ask?

If they’re not, either walk away or start cutting off the asking price with no mercy! In my experience, almost every initially suggested price could’ve been reduced by 10-15%, and many by 20-30%. I am not kidding, there is that much dirt involved in covering the actual reason to sell by a desperate owner. Only few may get stubborn and let their airplanes rot at the tie-downs. Too bad for them…

Another word of advice: Bring your friends in. Some of them may be more knowledgeable than you, or have more experience with particular airplane, or be better negotiators. Even playing a good cop – bad cop game may work out nicely and destroy the attempt to trick you into the sale using emotional pressure. Besides, your buddy may spot something you’ve overlooked just being busy with lots of things to check out.

And finally, there’s never too late to dump the deal. Even if you’ve done a solid thousand mile trip for a final checkout, but discovered something that makes you feel uneasy… drop it. Have a clause in your letter of intentions, stating clearly that the deal would not be signed unless you agreed upon it as per the personal inspection.

Found something wrong last moment? Point your finger and ask if that could be fixed now? If it can’t, make a decision – walk away, or press the owner to pay for that – so you’d either cover the future pain, or don’t waste anything more.

I know it all sounds cruel, but trust me – it’s so much better to be cruel and safe, than sit at your home base, looking at your new toy with bitter realization that you’ve just been generously owned by the seller, with no way back…

Feb 8 2013

Buying an Airplane in Canada, Part 2: Search

Best thing you can do in Canada when searching for a plane to buy, is to become a COPA member. Beware – they have a completely unsecure registration process which will expose your name, password, account number, and lots of other personally identifiable information to almost everyone who’d like to sneak a peek into your mail box.

That’s incompetent, unprofessional, and plain wrong – however, their membership will give you access to some excellent classifieds, and wealth of information about purchasing and owning aircraft in Canada. It is possible to download COPA guides for free, right, but these would probably be outdated, and honestly, why not to support the people who are doing something useful, even if they don’t always do it right?

Besides COPA, there is a website “”, which is rather worthless, with its listings mostly outdated and often incorrect (old photos, wrong specs, long ago sold planes). However, it’s a not too bad supplement to COPA classifieds for Canadian market, especially in the early stages of your search. And there isn’t other like it up here, alas.

Then there are Barnstormers – an incredibly popular and useful online marketplace for everything aviation. They usually have piles of stuff to look at, providing an easy and immediate contact with the sellers. However, absolute majority of the offerings would be outside Canada, and Canadian part of their listings is mostly an overpriced garbage.

Even Kijiji or Craigslist may have some airplanes on sale, and these may be quite interesting and more realistically priced compared to COPA classifieds or specialized websites – the drawback being a need to search through the bunch of provinces and cities. Google help you to get the right stuff in the most efficient way…

Plus there are also Trade-a-Plane, Controller and ASO. Controller is more for a vanilla type of planes, like Cherokees and 172s, ASO is for more expensive machines, and TaP provides good variety – but again, almost none of these listings will feature Canadian stuff (and if they will, that’ be the worst quality for highest price type of offerings.)

Couple of important things to keep in mind when working with aviation, or any other used vehicles ad listings:

  • Photos are mostly lying to you. Better disregard what you see in the ad, and request the owner to send you the most current ones, pointing out specific areas of interest. If the owner refuses to do that, dump him for he’s trying to hide bad things, or is just too lazy to earn your business;
  • Text of the ad may be very misleading – always keep an eye for the odd combinations of engine time and top overhauls, hints to damage history, etc. It’s incredible how good a textual ad may describe an airplane – and how poor would its actual logs look like in comparison;
  • Contact the seller immediately if there is a tiniest shade of interest in the offering. Some of them may prefer the phone, so insist on getting into email – this way you could get a more reliable grip on them, and receive specs and photos on demand. Do not trust excuses about the old-school no-email, these are only to hide something.

That’s not to say that a dude who can’t communicate properly, or posted some ugly picture with dumb description is actually selling hopeless junk, but that’s highly probable – the ultimate way to figure out would be a personal visit, if he’s nearby. But that won’t be the case in most of the situations – so don’t hesitate to abandon the poor cases at the first sight of the intentional information incompleteness.

Here comes another word of advice: Feel easy dumping the seller. Don’t care about their feelings, these may be perfectly fake. Or they can actually believe in the bullshit they’re telling you, but that’s even worse! Their stupidity or incompetence should not earn your business. Just in general – people sell something they don’t want anymore. And you’re attempting to buy it. Not purchasing a complete piece of garbage is in your very best interest, emotions should not affect the outcome.

Then comes the legal context…

Check the title. It’s a huge pain in the butt here in Canada… You can outsource the search to an agency, spending roughly 800-900 dollars to get a not 100% sure answer. Not because the agents are mean, it’s that Canadian system allows registering a lien in a number of ways, so there’s always a possibility that one of them would slip through the net.

Say, plane registration is C-FOAM – some of the provinces will register a lien to “FOAM”, others to “C-FOAM”, and others to “CF-OAM” or even “CFOAM”. Registry girls won’t care about the “correct” way of writing the registration mark, if even Transport Canada allows two perfectly valid ways of doing that!

Resulting record may refer to an airplane or just some “vehicle” with an odd number entered instead of VIN. In some provinces the plane could be, effectively, entered as an aircraft – but supposed to be searched on-line as a car, with no option for an aircraft provided! As ridiculous as it gets.

Besides, a lien could be hanging on a person’s name against the province, or be posted on a federal level. Plus there may be other cases I am not aware of, or not quite understand, so be careful – that’s just so idiotic and annoying…

But you can save some money by building a list of provinces and using their web sites to effectuate a personal registry search on your own – which will cost you about 8 dollars per search (don’t forget that you must try different versions of a registration, plus check a person who owned it previously). But then, some provinces require a paper mail or faxes moving around, slowing down an already cumbersome process.

And down in the States… sigh… there is simply a central FAA office registering liens on the aircraft. Check with them, and you’re done, in one simple and immediate turn. Cozy, eh?

But American airplanes bring you pain in another department – courtesy Transport Canada, not on their own.

Every little fix or modification of the plane should be “properly” documented, with no one except for MD-RAs or similar being capable of saying for sure what’s proper, and what’s not. And they still might be wrong, even being the same people who’d sign-off the importation papers in another occasion!

So whatever pain you save on title search for US aircraft, would return as huge importation chores anyways.

Which brings another advice: Get the scanned logs. These could be huge volumes, but hey, you’d rather show these ADs and 337s and other suspicious pieces of technical information to someone here in Canada who knows… hopefully… or at least may give an advice after looking at them.

And importing a plane from US is always a risk. If someone who’ve imported a couple of plain and boring 172s or 140s from there would attempt to teach you that “things are easy if you do them right”, disregard the moron – he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, unless he managed to bring up here a couple of Porterfields or Texans with no pain.

Jan 14 2013

Buying an Airplane in Canada, Part 1: Choice

So you crawl out of that filthy, beaten 172 you’ve just rented for almost two hundred bucks an hour plus taxes, and look at the grid of them pretty private birds sitting on the tie-downs. Notice an ad on the FBO billboard, suggesting a used 172 “in a very good shape” for something like forty grand. And you feel like “I think I could make it… Instead of wasting thousands each year in rentals and checkouts, accommodating for weather, instructors, availability – I’d have this thing all for myself, taking care of my own schedule!”

Welcome to the club.

Purchasing of a personal airplane is a big decision, but few people realize upfront that keeping it flying is a way more significant and expensive effort. We do imagine the numbers, sort of – but these are newbie optimistic. Than we spend these hard-earned thousands on a “bargain” airplane, and just about a year down the road end up with yet another dull airplane rusting to ground.

Can that be done right, instead – so we could fly the way we dreamed about, before buying a plane?

I think it’s possible, and would like to share my own thoughts and observations, in an  attempt to help those who are still in the early stage of becoming a plane-owner.

And my very first advice would be, give yourself a freedom to dream.

Browse through the countless ads everywhere you see them – from Barnstormers to FBO wall – and get an idea of what’s being sold, and how much are the people asking for it.

Then, with a fresh bouquet of dream machines that can possibly fit your wallet, do a deeper research:

For every plane you like, carefully read pilot reports on it, check the Internet forum threads talking about it, and study the NTSB statistics – paying special attention to the type of problems this aircraft is prone to. Engine troubles? Structural failures? Fires? Ground loops? Daydream yourself getting into this plane – or even better get into one for real, if you can! How do you feel in that cockpit – ready to fly, easy and comfortable? Or not quite so?

Nothing clears the picture better than personal experience, and my very second advice is: Don’t be afraid of being a “tire-kicker”. Disregard those who disagree, your safety and comfort come first. Period.

Surely, not everyone would be happy to give you a free (or cheap) ride unless you’ve somehow promised a purchase. Discuss that, but still do your best to get as much hands-on experience with the airplane of your dream. Hangar-flying is better than walking around, walking around is better than looking at the close-up photos, and close-up photos are better than verbal descriptions. Get a feel of the plane you’re interested in.

I can guarantee that many a candidates will drop off your list seamlessly after the first good look at them as your future property. Some would look attractive, but result being inaccessible financially. Others may be cheap, but look so bad you won’t really get together with them. Some may look simply boring and dull. Check with your wife – what does she say? That’d be your toy, but she must approve, or it will stand between you and her, causing family troubles!

Now what do you know about the maintenance of that plane – would its engine last barely a thousand hours at best? Is there a history of leaky fuel tanks, rust or cracks in the structural elements to be closely monitored at all time? Would you need to remove a wheelpant to adjust the tire pressure? Think about it – you’d either have to deal with all that hassle on your own, or delegate – and pay dearly! – to your mechanic for keeping that bird in a decent shape…

And after some consideration, you may find yourself looking at those boring Cherokees and 172s once again, though with a totally different eyes – understanding the practicality and value over classic appearance or hot performance. Or maybe you may clench your teeth and say “I’d make it fly, whatever it takes!”

My third word of advice and last for this chapter is – do what you’d enjoy doing. No need to degrade your dream just for sake of practicality. That new toy is expensive and will likely stay with you for a while, so don’t make that time hopelessly boring. Even a price of significant ground time while “fixing” the airplane, instead of flying it, may be ok for you – why not?

Personally, I went through periods of complete frustration where my search and study were killing almost any hope or interest. Every decent airplane I desired was either a pain to maintain, or located far down in the States with huge importation pains involved, or was in a poor enough condition to consider it a project rather than a functioning aircraft.

I got tired oscillating between “ok I’d ferry this thing up here and go through importation hurdles” and “damn it’s impossible, so what do we still have here in Canada?” Choosing between cheap and great looking planes – difficult and expensive to bring up here – and ugly local junk for ridiculous prices was driving me mad…

Reason for all that frustration? I was looking in the wrong places, for wrong airplanes, not being brave enough to clinch with the owners negotiating a reasonable price.

Don’t repeat my errors, go straight to the meaningful search, and work hard to filter out things that you don’t love from the first, second, and any consequent sight.

Nov 20 2012

Best Basic Trainer – Piper vs. Cessna

Piper Cherokee was always somehow lost in Cessna’s shadow – even being quite omnipresent across the planet, and beloved by its owners, these airplanes don’t appear to be a flight schools favorite. In all Toronto area there was only one flight school renting out a Warrior, and apparently there is only one flight school in using Cherokees for training in all Canada – Langley, in BC.

So what makes the last Piper creation stand so strangely between the others? In my opinion, it is a combination of factors which make Cherokee an acceptable family ride, but poor basic trainer. And first and foremost of these are…


That’s the first thing you notice while trying to steer a Cherokee around. Every student pilot knows that an aileron should be turned somewhere “into the wind”, in attempt to prevent the airplane from being flipped over by an evil gust of wind. Granted, no student (neither most of the other pilots) would ever encounter a wind so gusty as to flip an airplane. Let alone go flying in such wind – but an attempt to cross-control a Cherokee would immediately result in a physical struggle against the yoke.

Bungees are especially noticeable if you come from Cessna background – suddenly there is no way to check the aileron or rudder hinges during the walk around, twisting the yoke into the wind feels silly, and besides… even the rudder pedals are connected to the nose wheel directly, eager to tell you about every bump on the taxiway! It’s all weird, everything feels so wrong.

Brakes are weak, so direct connection between the rudder and pedals helps in negotiating those tight turns around other parked airplanes (but there comes a bonus – as most of your neighbors will be high-wing Cessnas, it’s too easy to swipe your low wing underneath theirs!) And it immediately made me think that I should keep the rudder straight when lowering the nose on landing roll – or a very unpleasant, or even dangerous, nose jolt would follow.

A definitely strong side of Cherokee is crosswinds handling. Rudder is weak, and transition from steering with a nose wheel to steering with a rudder after lifting the nose, immediately demonstrates that – but still, one of the windy days I was able to handle 20G30 at 80 degrees doing an hour of circuits without ever losing control. Though in many cases I had to use full leg while rolling on the mains (or main, depending on the case)…

As soon as you attempt to pull on the yoke, elevator sensitivity becomes very apparent. And as soon as you try to stabilize the angle of attack, a great deal of precise trim work would be required. Cessna 172 needs trimming, all right, but in Cherokee your right hand would have to switch from throttle to trim, and remain there for most of the flight!

The Warrior I was flying had a 180 hp engine with a constant speed prop, so it was climbing fast and tough, with overall feeling like it can lift up whatever you load into it. With full tanks and four people aboard climb rate was way better than in a 172 SP with same number of passengers and half tanks. Where Cessna struggled, Cherokee moved strong like a tank – though not “vertical” as, for example, a stock Super Cub.

There is no feedback from the elevator, you’d have to fly it much like a flight simulator – moving your hand, looking, reacting, trying not to induce oscillation, holding, trimming, and praying that this last try was precise enough. And in the beginning, there would always be too much elevator – so don’t be discouraged.

Once finally stabilized in the air, airplane does not feel as steady as a Cessna. The whole machine feels short-coupled, wagging a bit here and there, bobbing the nose up and down… Any change in power settings requires re-trimming. Those stupid bungees were supposed to help you stay coordinated during the turns, but if you try to fly with yoke or rudders only – there will be lots of extra banking or yawing involved – so I tend to fly Cherokee with hands and feet working together, ignoring (or rather overcoming) bungees every time they don’t do a good job of “auto coordinating” the plane.

Stall break is soft and easy to handle, with no significant buffeting, and a stall warning produces a weak beep way too early. However, a Warrior I flew did not demonstrate a tendency to drop the wing lower than 10-15 degrees on the power-on stalls, and compensation was easy – despite a weak rudder. Ailerons also work fine through the stall (though the bungees would make you remember about them, obviously).

Try the steep turns. See? All these instability and short-coupling feelings become overwhelming! If you are trimmed for the turn speed and keep working all the control surfaces, steep turns can be done nicely and with reasonable precision. Try to slack and leave bungees to “help” you, or be too muscular on the yoke instead of trimming – and you’d get some seriously ugly steep turns.

Cessna pilot would be pleasantly surprised by an excellent all-around visibility. No need to raise the wing, frantically peeking from under it, hoping to see someone landing on top of you. My wife loves to make aerial photos, and from her perspective, Warrior was an awesome photo-platform, with excellent visibility around and even below – the wing is only restricting the view behind and below, but forward view is awesomely open.

Dashboard, though, is rather high – and 172’ pilot would tend to put a pillow under his butt to get a Cessna-like view. 150’s pilot would be just ok, and anyone who flew the taildraggers would be hard pressed to complain about the lack of forward visibility.

There are unnecessary nuisances, though – for example, fuel tank switch doesn’t have a crossfeed position. Lack of the support for the pilot’s left hand is annoying – you have to hang on the yoke. Upper latch on the door is a pain to deal with, when used and beaten (and most of them are very used and beaten), though prevents the classic Cessna’s “what’s that noise?” after an unexpected door opening in flight. Handbrake is rather awkward to work with. Throttle quadrant levers are generally used in barely ¼ of available travel – and a huge pain to do set them precisely in turbulent air! I generally nudge them with a light pressure of my fingers, rather then moving the levers.

Cruising in a Cherokee is not as plain and simple as in Cessnas, due to all the trimming and re-trimming required – but the speeds may be a tad bit faster with full load. Though nothing exciting, really – a 172 RG feels just about the same, and leaps forward even faster after stabilized at cruise settings. Your passengers would feel less bumps, though – Cherokee feels like it is cutting through the air, while Cessnas are floating through it.

I never spinned a Cherokee, but tried the spiral dives – they looked weird, with fast initial acceleration, but if left on its own, my Warrior was simply stabilizing at some comfortable speed (within green arc), and just sitting there, spiraling to the ground with rather flat bank.

Slipping a Cherokee is a waste of time, same as using its flaps. Both flaps and slipping are inefficient, and invite for a better way to lose an excess of altitude – slowing down. Once below certain magic number (depending on the rigging, I guess), Cherokee sinks like a rock. Even more so during the power-off turn, while simulating an emergency approach! The ground just lifts up and tries to eat you, so you feel like adding power and lowering the nose and doing whatever is needed to keep the speed flyable and the fall, stopped…

Approach requires keeping a right speed. Slow down – you’ve busted it sinking deep and fast, and will need to recover. Speed up – and you will float, and float, and float a few feet above the runway, with plenty of time to think about going around. Nail the right speed – and you will touch down solid and clear, easily holding the nose up and compensating for any crosswind you may encounter. If Cherokee is forced down flat, it softly lifts back into the air, and you may believe that you are still rolling – while skimming a couple of feet above the runway! When there is a headwind to talk about, you can even land “short” (say, longer than 172, but way shorter than a usual Cherokee long run).

All in all – using Cherokee as a training platform does not sound like a good idea to me. For a trained pilot, all these nuisances and idiosyncrasies would not be too much to cope with – but for a newbie flier, many wrong and unnecessary things would be implanted in the brain, and many extra hours would be spent fighting the machine. It is an a-ok family transport, strong and sturdy, sort of like a used SUV vs. usual cars – but nothing really exciting as far as stick and rudder flying goes. Nor it can beat Cessnas in being a pilot-friendly airplane – however, Cherokees are generally cheap, which gives them a deserved share of the GA machines market.

Oct 19 2012

Best Basic Trainer – 172 vs. 150

It came barely noticeable for the most of the planet population, that lowly Cessna 172 became the most produced airplane in history – finally bypassing the Soviet WWII biplane Po-2. Cessna 172 is probably the most widely used basic trainer, only seeing competition from its elder and smaller brother, Cessna 150/152.

People tend to pick 172 for its larger cabin, and 150 for cheaper flight hour price, but digging a bit deeper, differences between the two aircrafts become much more interesting – making each of them a useful piece of training equipment in its own right.

But let’s begin with similarities, explaining why airplanes made by Cessna became a de-facto flight training standard pretty much around the planet:

  • Both airplanes provide side-by-side seating– with yoke controlled with the left hand, and engine controlled with the right hand. This layout is standard for all modern transport machines and passenger airliners;
  • Both airplanes are designed to fly specific set of “hardcoded” speeds, consistently achieving exactly the same performance flying by the numbers. Set a specific RPM, look in a specific direction, drop a specific amount of flaps, and you will touch down the runway precisely at the same point, every time;
  • Both airplanes are built to train “drivers”, not “fliers”. They have a tricycle gear– making takeoff, taxi and landing as easy, as riding a kiddie tricycle. They seamlessly recover from any “unusual attitude”, and do not demonstrate even a hint of adverse yaw when banking into a turn;
  • Both airplanes have enough space on the dashboard to scatter it with advanced navigation equipment, permitting to train the future Boeing and Airbus drivers in using all the bells and whistles.

Overall, both Cessnas are easy to fly and maintain, very forgiving to the pilot errors, and sturdy enough to withstand the consequences of incompetent handling. Ham-fisted dummy can fly Cessnas any time uncoordinated, landing flat and yanking the plane into the air without even realizing there may be any more finesse required. Put him in anything less forgiving, and he’d crash it – but modern airliners are flying pretty much like Cessnas, so our dummy can happily fly all his life through an airline captain career… unless at some point he would need actual piloting skills to survive – but that’s a different story.

So let’s return to detailed comparison between 172 and 150. What one can do, that other can’t?

  • 172 insists that its pilot use trim – 150 can be set to 60 knots glide and left like that forever, applying minimal muscular effort to adjust the speed while in the pattern;
  • 172 is heavier, and not nearly as nimble as 150 – the difference in the control input required is like between driving a Fiesta vs. Camry;
  • Pilot can sit way too high in 172, thanks to its adjustable sits – and get accustomed to a helicopter-like forward visibility, not present in most aircraft (excluding the airliners and cargo planes);
  • Sitting too high helps smacking the plane flat on the runway, or learning to pull way too much back during the flare – which may be dangerous in “hot”, fast machines with high wing loading;
  • Pilot is a quarter of the human load aboard the 172 – and half of it for 150. Amount of available fuel is also bigger for 172, which simplifies weight and balance calculation for the smaller plane;
  • Both in the air and on the ground, 172 accelerates slower than 150 – which is already not quite a drag racer;
  • Nose wheel shimmy damper of 172 is less efficient that the one on 150. When riding a bad surface, 172 will start gurgling and shaking earlier than 150;
  • Once trimmed, heavier 172 sits in the air more solidly than 150 – reacting less to the turbulence, gusts and crosswinds;
  • Rudder of the 172 feels heavier than that of 150, and requires significantly larger input;
  • Once accelerated, 172 doesn’t slow down as easy as 150 – this is especially noticeable when doing spins, wingovers, or similar high speed and load maneuvers;
  • 172 doesn’t slip nearly as good as 150. Both planes can be kept at a pretty aggressive yaw, but sink rate of 150 will be significantly higher;
  • Stall horn on both airplanes is very annoying and comes off rather early. With 172 the pre-stall buffet is more pronounced and begins earlier, making it more noticeable than in 150;
  • 172 requires a way more work to get it spinning (in trainer configuration), and converts a spin into a spiral easily. 150 enters the spin, if you clearly ask for it, and recovers normally;
  • 150 has a slower cruise, than 172 – not really THAT slow for a typical training cross-country, but slow enough to be noticeable;
  • Full flaps can literally stop the 150 in the air – in case of 172 and 152 they can’t be dropped so low, and being heavier, 172 can overcome the flaps and accelerate on approach – requiring better timing;
  • 150 can be landed real short, if there is enough headwind. 172 would require a fair amount of runway to be spent, whatever you do to land it slowly – and floars way more than 150, so don’t come in too hot;
  • On the roll-out, 172 can wonder off the runway harder than 150 – and differential braking won’t be as helpful, so moving the yoke in right direction is required to stay on the centerline when a crosswind is present.

All in all, nimble and light 150 is more of a “stick and rudder” airplane, while 172 gives more of a truck driving experience – and that’s what is actually needed for most commercial pilots in our times.

Whichever of the two airplanes you’ve been flying, attempt to convert to a, say, Super Cub or Citabria would be painful. You’d have to learn much more in order to become capable of handling the adverse yaw, different stall and spin characteristics, as well as a completely distinct ground handling, take-off and landing techniques.

However, if you plan to move from Cessna to Seneca, and later to King Air, etc. – everything would work out nicely. Fixed speeds, tricycle gear, excellent forward visibility, inertia, required weight and balance, take-off and landing distance calculations – you’ll need all that experience.

Stick and rudder flying is less and less needed in our time, so if a prospective student pilot is not too bothered by financial constraints, or specifically target flying lighter and older airplanes in the future, I would suggest going for a 172 as a basic training platform. It will take a bit more time to master, but would make you a better airplane driver.

And then, when you’ve got your license, guess which airplane would be the most widely available for rental? Sure, the same 172 you’ve been trained in. And it will be omnipresent in the airplane classifieds as well, in case you’d like to buy something on your own.

Sep 9 2012

Why They Crash? Part 2: Human Factor

Every time we hear the infamous term “human factor” related to an aviation accident, it is almost invariably combined with another cliché: “pilot error”.

Though not necessary wrong, it is important to understand that pilot – by a virtue of his position – is always at the end of the events chain. His involvement may be major or minor factor, but whoever the fault – pilot is the first to be held responsible, and his unlucky passengers and cargo are those who’d ultimately suffer from the event.

Let’s look at the most common type of human errors related to the flight safety. Using airline statistics from the previous article, I am getting the following numbers:

37.85% – accidents directly attributed to the pilot error (navigation errors resulting in collision with terrain, attempt to fly through a thunderstorm, fuel mismanagement, ground loops or runway excursions on landing, etc.)

14.01% – accidents related to the engine failure (fire, catastrophic failure, consequent forced landing in a hopelessly unsuitable area, etc.)

11.93% – accidents related to external events (aircraft destroyed by terrorists, crashed by some fuel or service trucks, arson, etc.)

8.45% – accidents related to the control difficulties (excessively demanding aircraft handling, runaway trim or similar conditions, control surfaces or connections failures, etc.)

3.29% – accidents related to the ground roll (landing gear failure on takeoff and landing, asymmetric leg retraction or trust reverse, blown tires, stuck brakes, etc.)

1.74% – accidents related to the aircraft systems (autopilot failures, electrical fires, navigation system or oxygen supply failures, catastrophic decompression, etc.)

Disregarding unknown causes and minor, rare occurrences, such as airplane disintegrating in the air due to a poor design or maintenance, responsible for barely 1.72% of the known cases, this count gives us a hefty total of 77.27% of the accidents directly or indirectly related to a human error, or criminal intention.

That’s ¾ of all cases!


Even removing those dummy truck drivers smashing parked airplanes, and nasty terrorists blowing airliners from the sky, we still have more than 65% of the accidents traceable to the pilots, controllers, or mechanics negligence and incompetence.

How happen that pilots carrying an Airline Transport license, with thousands of hours, still manage to overshoot or undershoot the runway? Depart the runway, reaping the aircraft in pieces engulfed in flames? Stall and spin it on a published departure, or sink to the ground on approach? Why the heck do those highly trained and competent individuals deviate from the canned and proven flight course to smack an aircraft into the mountain wall? Just having a bad moment?

And those incredibly smart and organized ATCs, who yell on the pilots for minor mistakes, yet fail to separate Jumbos on a collision course – or pass the developing trouble to a buddy, who doesn’t bother to check out a handful he just got? The whole air traffic control system was created to help pilots know each other’s position for sure, with ground control keeping an eye on the radar – but we still have air-to-air collisions every year, and the whole bunch of sophisticated electronics doesn’t help much to survive the ever shrinking separation minimums…

Airlines spend trillions of dollars in maintenance, yet we continue getting news about the airliner engines flaming out, hulls popping into explosive decompression, doors opening in flight, and even the stupid air conditioning systems dripping water on the passenger faces as a minor nuisance. Pilot can do just as much when he’s facing a need to land the crippled airplane in the middle of nowhere, scratching the thin, soft belly over a rough terrain at a landing speed of hundreds miles per hour!

And personally, I would not exclude the ramp truckers from the responsibility chain. They are paid way too well, and their unions defend them way too much, so they don’t feel sorry about damaging millions-worth airplanes – and risking the lives of those who will travel in a repaired ship, with less strength and durability in it.

Looks like the problem is not in the people per se, the whole system is overloaded and cumbersome. And whatever happens within it, though designed with the best intentions, ends up in completely stupid and avoidable human mistakes that lead to a final disaster.

Too much politics and money involved to do things right. Completely obsolete and idiotically bureaucratic procedures and requirements keep on lingering in the aeronautics regulations system for ages, because adding them is so much easier than removing. Ergonomics and usability of the flight management systems – from the airplane cockpit to the ground control tower – is Stone Age, with pretty (and pretty expensive) neon lights and soft plastic added to demonstrate the “progress”. Insane insurance bills make profit margins a joke, yet amount of money paid for everything “aviation grade certified” makes flying ridiculously expensive…

And inefficient.

There isn’t much we can do to squeeze more from the pilots – they are already way too overstressed for a sky bus and truck drivers. Their tasks are simplified, but procedures are overwhelmingly complex and dumb.

Can we filter out the pilots prone to make bad decisions, thus minimizing the factor of pilot error? Current flight training system is specifically focused on exact procedure following, excellent memory and discipline. This is quite opposite to independent thinking and decision making – basically modern pilots are intentionally selected to be primitive robots, easily liable in case of an accident, as they generally don’t survive it.

I would say that we can definitely do better, though this will require a paradigm shift.

It is hard to ask much more from the ATC’s – human brains have limits in the number of objects to consciously and consistently control, so even with all the electronic aids, looks like we are pushing this limit every time global business requires reduction of flight separation minimums.

The whole concept of communication between ground and air units could be changed, though – from imprecise and error-prone voice chat to precise and immediate telemetry, predefined banks of requests and responses, precisely integrated into the navigation and traffic control structures. That’s also a huge paradigm shift, minimizing human participation and impact – though making the system more dependent on a technology, with all corresponding development and maintenance issues.

What surely MUST be done is booting the unions, lawyers and politicians out from aviation for everyone’s safety. This may require some sort of dictatorship imposed by the government, but hey, if that’s the only way to do that – it should be done. Unless we really want to keep “enjoying” the images of charred human bodies scattered between the aircraft remains, pretty much daily in the news.


Imagine a heavily robotized aerial-transport system, optimized planet-wide. Aircraft are as good as it gets to fly the Earth atmosphere. Think neatly maintained airports, able to receive these aircraft anytime, any weather, within each design limitations. Dream take-off, en route and landing procedures orchestrated and controlled to the smoothest possible level by automated systems, dynamically adjusted to the ever changing logistics scenarios.

Imagine the people dealing with this system – much more managers than operators, much more architects than truck drivers. Intelligent, capable to make quick and smart decisions and stand for them, personally responsible, efficiently communicating… There will be much less of them needed, comparing to the current number of the cockpit and tower monkeys. But they would be also much better paid for designing and supervising the automated systems, improving and guaranteeing safety of the traffic flows in the real time.

Imagine everyone responsible for the airports and aircraft maintenance being held liable, directly and personally, for what they are doing – thinking about every action that may affect safety of the system. No more goofballs on a tractor smacking the tail of aparked airplane. No more idiots unable to latch the cargo doors. No more assholes leaving debris on the runway or forgetting to fuel the aircraft before flight.

Imagine a new generation of pilots, as smart and efficient as the above mentioned aerospace system managers, working the layer of emergency response, military and law enforcment flying. Aviators, not operators – understanding the system and capable to cooperate with and within it! Air taxi will stop being a killer, becoming a flexible and efficient transportation mean…

Sounds like a dream to me.

You say, many will lose their nicely paid jobs? Of course, and to hell with them! I would rather be sitting in a computer-controlled and human-supervised airplane, safely travelling from A to B in the most efficient way, than care about lazy and dumb asses who think McDonalds is no different from the airport in a sense of work quality and responsibilities.

And looks like we are slowly moving in a right direction, however, there will be many lives lost until we get there. God knows how I’d like the future to come faster, so I could enjoy the crow-hopping around the small local airport in a vintage biplane, knowing all too well that no dumbass will attempt to ram me going “low-level IFR” without any regard to everyone else’s lives. Strict rules help. Smart systems save lives. We need to be there.


Jun 15 2012

Why They Crash? Part 1: Aircraft

I am an active pilot who is not afraid to study the aviation accidents, doing that pretty much daily. I strongly believe that understanding of the common patterns will help me fly safer myself, and share the necessary knowledge with other pilots, hopefully helping them to stay alive and save their passengers.

There are many ways of analyzing the accident-related statistics. For example, one may study the detailed accident reports to understand which parts of the aircraft or the flight organization and processes are the most prone to cause trouble – and pay particular attention to them before each flight. Or, go through a huge volume of the high-level statistics of the airliner crashes in an attempt to understand the root causes of the accidents – not necessary machine-related.

This article is based on the latter study – I am trying to answer a question, whether there is such thing as “unsafe airplane”, and how much is an aircraft at fault when it comes to the accidents?

I have approached the statistics analysis in a reasonably simplified manner, cutting the time required, yet providing me with all the mandatory information related to the aviation occurences. Here are the rules I’ve followed:

  • Work with the airliners statistics. It is the best documented one, and it deals with the best maintained airplanes in the industry – clearly revealing any technical or human deficiencies, which is not the case for the GA statistics;
  • Disregard GA as a whole, as it combines the sloppiest pilots with worst maintained airplanes flying by least efficient processes and frequently ignoring the rules all together. I may wish to review the GA status further on, but airliners are a way more useful starting point;
  • Study the big numbers – mass produced, popular airplanes, flying all around the planet for decades. This gives a good picture of the airplane safety profile evolution – from early issues being worked on, to the older airplane employment with accompanying fatigue problems and substandard maintenance;
  • Be realistic in the case studies – do not bog down to the doubtful details, or ignore the unpopular tendencies. I was specifically trying to reveal the patterns – not to accumulate quasi-reliable data;
  • Get to the final conclusions, making practical sense to the active pilots – and being potentially interesting to the passengers as well.

With that in mind, I’ve created a spreadsheet which contained the airplane “families” (e.g.: Fokker 27/50, An-24/26/30, Convair 240/340/440) – and matched the quantity of aircraft produced against the number of accidents occurred. I did not distinguish between the fatality levels, feeling that registered write-off accident is an event important enough to be part of the statistics – regardless to the biological or financial outcome.

I’ve sorted the resulting numbers and got to a first conclusion – some of the immensely popular and generally regarded as “safe” aircraft were dangerously close to the top of the least reliable flying machines ever produced. Many factors contributed to such layout, the most important being common usage locations and overall lifespan. Marketing efforts and good business connections with military and civilian clients were not the last in creating a false image of the “safe airplane”.

For example, now infamous Soviet airliners were enjoying quite a long and impressively safe career until the state collapse – after which every possible incident, from hijacking to the maintenance related crashes, started haunting them, dropping the statistics down the drain.

Similarly, fine and safe European airliners were demonstrating excellent service record while flying in the civilized part of the world – and becoming death traps while moving to the places like Africa, Asia, or Latin America. There, deficient maintenance of the complex systems, together with lack of the professional flight management and organization, immediately rendered the previously nice fliers to some of the ugliest mechanical demons, mass-murdering their passengers and the crews.

Also, as I’ve mentioned earlier, smaller series of the aircraft were not good at representing the accident statistics – those small batches were frequently delivered to the least demanding customer, flew with poorly trained crews, consistently poorly maintained, and in the least favorable organizational and natural environments.

Big numbers help to overcome that sort of fluctuations, yet another step was required to understand why some airplanes were pussy cats, and other, real bitches:

To get to the conclusions, I’ve literally browsed through thousands of the accident synopsis cases for 40 most popular airliners. I’ve chosen eight types of accidents, covering most of the typical combinations: Human Factor, Controllability, Engine Failures, Landing Gear, Aircraft Systems, Structural Failures, Force Majeure, and Unknown.

This structure allowed simplify the case studies, and filtering out the odd cases – for example, “Force Majeure” encapsulated the military incidents, hangar fires, terrorist attacks, hurricane damage and such. “Controllability” took in account the cases when pilots had hard time to fly their machines, together with reasonably rare occurences where physical controls failed. “Landing Gear” cases included failures of the gear legs, tires and brakes. “Aircraft Systems” were grouping accidents related to the hydraulic or electric system failures. “Engine Failures” included both engine destruction and fuel fires – however excluding the outcome of the incompetent partial engine operation or fuel mismanagement by the crew (those fell into the large “Human Factor” bucket). Scary “Structural Failure” group included the cases where aircraft was literally falling apart in the sky due to a poor design or maintenance – deliberate self-destruction while flying through the thunderstorm was, again, a human factor.

After digging through this impressive amount of information, “Human Factor” resulted to be a predominant reason for the vast majority of the accidents. Pilots and Traffic Controllers were making every effort to smash aircrafts into each other, mountains, water, or terrain. Mechanics were connecting the control surfaces wrong, making time bombs out of perfectly usable engines, and overall letting airplanes self-destroy in the air with everyone aboard. Lack of organization, responsibility, processes and efficient management was consistently killing in about 50% of the registered and documented airliner crash cases.

Which is rather low – I would have expected the number to be somewhere in 60-70% neighborhood, but alas – it wasn’t that easy:

Another greatest killer was “Unknown“, attributed to about 20% of the registered accidents. Airplanes were declared due, and after a more or less prolonged search, a wreck was discovered – or sometimes not even. And if the wreck was in place, it was often impossible to understand with reasonable clarity why the plane crashed. It would be safe to assume, though, that most of the “Unknown” cases could have been attributed to one of the established reasons, in a similar proportion (e.g.: half of the “unknowns” must be a human factor, etc…)

Engine was a second most important accident reason (or excuse) between the explained ones, responsible for about 15% of the accidents. Airplanes are designed to fly with only part of their engines working. They are supposed to be landable and flyable with all the engines stopped, or on fire. Crews are trained and examined to prove that they can handle any of those situations. But… they still keep on crashing. Flaming engines rarely burn through the wing structure, causing it to fail – much more frequently pilots manage to wipe out their expensive machines in a totally recoverable situation! This is, obviously, another face of the Human Factor – people are trained to do the right thing, but fail to do it and crash.

Many of the otherwiswe safe airplanes with rather elevated accident rate owed their ugly reputation to the flaming engines, combined with unfriendly terrain and provokingly poor maintenance and airmanship. Short Skywan or CASA 212 would be good examples of such “unlucky” planes.

If not for the engine, a third significant killer would be “Controllability” with about 5% score. Certified aircraft are designed to be as easy to fly as possible. Besides all the rest, pilots are expected to handle a huge load of traffic communications, manage lots of complex internal systems providing the passenger comfort and safety, etc., etc., etc… And they must fly those airplanes in the spare time. So an airliner just can’t afford to be difficult to fly – but noticeable number of them is.

Vickers Viscount or Avro York were particularly notorious for the cumbersome and error-prone cockpit layout – their crews were struggling, consistently and often futile, to maintain control after encountering an engine problem or in a complex navigational situation. DeHavilland Dove or Boeing Stratocruiser series resulted to be such a handful for their pilots to deal with in case of emergency, that runway overruns, departure stalls and approach spins were a common situation in many accident cases.

[As a side note, it would be interesting to study why British aircraft were especially prone to sport horrible cockpit layouts, tricky handling and other clearly not quite “user-friendly” characteristics?]

Some machines were painful in certain particular area – such as consistent runaway trim accidents with Beechcraft 99, or flaming engines on Vickers Valetta series. Others were carrying an impressive bouquet of issues – Hawker Siddeley 748 being a great example: After its scarily unreliable engines were on fire, the crew could have crashed due to poor slow-speed handling, weak landing gear, or just get their wings burn away! Keeping in mind a particular popularity of the type in South America and Southern Asia, there’s no surprise that this airliner stood steadily between the 10 most dangerous flying coffins in aviation history.

Other airplanes just had that shadowy reputation – one never knew what may happen next? Bristol 170 freighter and Nord Noratlas transport plane were one of those machines which just loved to disappear, or be found crashed without obvious reasons. In certain cases someone on the ground was telling that pieces of the airplane were separating from it in flight. In other cases, someone else have seen a fireball in the sky – but what exactly happened was never cleared out, especially keeping in mind that those machines were often used for all sort of covert and paramilitary operations around the globe. One would have felt strange in the cockpit of those planes ready to take off – sort of like playing Russian roulette.

Aircraft systems, such as hydraulics or electrics, rarely score a serious hit on the safety – but when they do, accidents are generally quite bizarre! In some cases solving the airplane infrastructure issue distracts the pilots enough to smash into the ground. In other cases, electric short circuit goes all the way to ignite the fuel fire, with engines dropping off the wing in flight and desperate passengers opening the emergency exits and jumping from the smoke-filled cabins without a parachute.

Landing gear, as innocent as it sounds, takes its toll of the aircrafts swerving off the runway and bursting in flames during takeoff or landing. Passing the runway end and crashing in some airport buildings is another typical courtesy of the faulty gear. And even if it just collapses on touch down and airplane survive the run on its fuel and luggage-filled belly, passengers and crew are guaranteed to have a ride of their life…

But overall, just to reiterate, a “dangerous” airplane would have beeen a reason for a disaster in less than half of the cases. And there were many, many popular and safe airliners and cargo planes produced in thousands and flying through their career honestly and safely. In most cases I would be least worried about the design flaws – rather I would be very careful checking out the quality of the maintenance, conditions of the airplane records (“logs”), and overall flight organization. If a general attitude around will be: “No worries, nothing will happen”, I’d be very much tempted to stay away from the cockpit – as much as I love to fly!

Similarly, professional maintenance, competent pilots and efficient traffic control allows even the troublesome airplanes fly through most of their career without becoming a wreck in the jungle.

Because they don’t crash as much due to the mechanical issues, as they do due to the human factor. Statistics confirms that clearly and obviously.

Apr 24 2012

Flying a Merlin EZ

Almost a year ago I flew my first “taildragger” airplane, a homebuilt Merlin EZ. It was initially designed in Baldwin, Ontario, than the rights were sold to an American company, then a version with a different wing was sold back to Canada – now produced in Calgary by Blue Yonder Aviation.

I was barely 60 or 70 hours old as a pilot by that time, and my impressions were mostly emotional – I liked Merlin and was happy to tell how it feels to fly an experimental taildragger! Now with quite a bit more experience under my belt, I can compare it with a wider range of machines, and give a better account on its flying qualities.

When I first saw Merlin EZ, three things struck my mind: “Wow, it’s a so-called ultralight, but it looks big and heavy!” “Hey, it’s actually well built, doesn’t look flimsy at all – homebuilt quality is not worse than a certified airplane one…” “Hmm, the control stick is weird – a strange Y-shape, wouldn’t it be awkward to control an airplane with such thing?”

Getting inside Merlin was another awkward affair – you must grab some of the many steel tubes crisscrossing the cockpit area, then drag yourself up on the bench (there are no separate seats), pull the legs inside, and don’t forget to close the door before you click the seatbelts – otherwise you won’t be able to reach the door handle.

Sounds like a lot of hassle, though it is fairly common for the vintage and homebuilt airplanes – for those, being able to get in the air without falling apart is a task important enough to yield the comfort and ease of getting inside the machine. Besides, being able to quickly get out is way more important in case of crash and fire – and whatever difficult is the entry in the Merlin’s cockpit, exit is as easy as bailing out, which is good.

The airplane was equipped with a high-end fuel injected, computer controlled Rotax engine. Its operation is almost as easy as dealing with an electric motor – switch it on and move the throttle, that’s all it takes. Computer will take care about the mixture metering, provide an excellent power output and fuel economy. No carburetor – hence no carb ice to form and carb heat to be operated. The only drawback is a complete dependence on the electric power availability – one short circuit is all it takes to shut the engine down with no easy way to make it running again.

As soon as Merlin starts moving, it feels rock-solid and almost as easy to drive around as a tricycle plane. Visibility over the hood is just a tad bit less than in C150, control inputs are obvious, fat tires and bungee suspension deals easily with rolling over the raw terrain. Reasonably firm compensation is required to stop the swing if the tail starts swooshing around, and most taxiing is done without using the brakes. Crosswind inputs are not really needed – the airplane is short and stubby, squatting low and wide, so the wind has almost no effect on it while on the ground.

Take-off roll, though, is a different story! As soon as you apply the power, nose goes sideways in one strong movement. Try to pin it down to roll on the mains, overcompensate what feels like a tiny bit – and the machine will swing another way as fast and decisively. This short tail is wagging sideways so easy and with so few inertia, that it takes some effort and learning to get the machine rolling in a straight line on takeoffs.

On the positive side, thanks to the low and wide gear with big, soft wheels, you can keep on bouncing, popping in the air and plopping back, even hitting the bumps sideways without ground looping! Try to leap into ground effect crabbing, from one wheel – and Merlin will forgive you. Compared to the Piper Cub or Tiger Moth with their long tails, high and narrow wheelbase, Merlin is really an “EZ” to deal with taildragger.

Climbouts are uneventful – as soon as bobbing and bouncing stops, machine sits steady and firm in the air. No need to anticipate anything – just point it in a right direction and it will go there. If you pull the nose a bit higher, excess of power will not allow you to drain the airspeed quick enough to get surprised. Stall break is so gentle that you will be comfortable lowering the nose so no one will notice, if you’ve absent-mindedly slow down from 60 to 40.

In cruise, trim is working just fine – keep the horizon exactly in the middle of the windscreen, set the power to 5000 RPM and you will move forward at 75 MPH, steady and smooth. Acceleration and deceleration are not mind-blowing, and correspond to the overall performance of the aircraft – so there will be no surprises. Your hand can rest comfortably on that funny Y-shaped stick, and lightweight plastic prop will settle on the RPM required without unneeded spooling up or down, common for the heavy wooden or steel props.

Turns and banks may result being a thrilling experience for the seasoned Cessna or Piper drivers. Just move that stick to the left. Oops – where’s your nose going?! It actually swungs to the right immediately after the stick application, and does that so decidedly and quick that yoke-jockey will get puzzled and lost on a spot. Getting inverted response to the controls application is scary, and “dead feet” resting on the pedals without using them is making the things even more frustrating.

Merlin will really teach you about the adverse yaw – its full-span Junkers ailerons and short tail guarantee an impressive wiggling around on the slightest lateral move of the stick, or a power settings change. Meanwhile a rather small, but surprisingly effective rudder with no compensation will require a hefty push on the pedals to move it – and when it moves, the plane can be easily turned sideways!

However, despite the fat and square fuselage and powerful rudder, sideslips are less than impressive – the plane yaws a lot, but doesn’t sink at all. That’s not good, as even with a short and fat wing Merlin glides reasonably well (better than Cherokee, worse than C172). So if you are slightly higher and faster than needed on the approach, there will be no way to fix that and land shorter – you would buzz the runway, while hopelessly trying to extinguish the slightest excess of speed and altitude.

Merlin is not an aerobatic plane by any means – it rams the air up to around 80 MPH without any chance to go faster, despite any power applied. Pull the nose up with power on – and the plane will gently swoosh down after going below 35-40 MPH. No significant wing drop, no shaking, just a soft mush in slow motion. Flat horizontal surfaces are not particularly effective in exceeding the critical angle of attack and breaking the stall, they just can’t pull the nose up high enough – and the relatively fragile wings, with their single strut and foam-metal structure, twist easily and do not invite anything that feels like an accelerated stall.

If needed, you can turn rather tight – and there will be no tendency to lose the airspeed in a stealthy way after pulling on a stick, so common for the low-powered light airplanes. Merlin keeps on turning without tightening it up or losing the altitude, ever so easy and smooth except for the rudder work required. And when you’ll get accustomed to turn with your feet, while barely helping them with your hand, flying around would become easy and obvious.

On approach, the nose will drop quite significantly after removing the power – airflow over the wing pushes the tail down more than in Cessnas. Low cowl profile adds to the sensation of a pronounced nose drop, as soon as the plug is pulled off. If you raise the nose, elevators would only be able to do their job efficiently down to about 50 MPH – the slower you go the more stick will be needed to keep the nose up. And when you are slow enough – the plane will start sinking.

Combination of reasonably fast approach speed with pretty limited slow-speed handling makes Merlin EZ a non-STOL plane. Yes you can work out a 2000 feet runway in no wind without much trouble, but overall flying this machine requires more of a Cherokee mindset – nothing to do with expected Cub-like “feather” attitude.

So the typical landing sequence would be rolling out from the base at circuit altitude with cruise speed, slowing down to 70 MPH on final and waiting for the nose to start overlapping the runway numbers. Smoothly reduce the power, compensate for the adverse yaw, and pull the nose up till reaching 65-60 MPH. Visibility will be worse at 60, but 65 will eat up a good bit of additional distance while flaring.

Final is generally stable, crosswind compensations are simple and a wing-low method is the easiest – though crabbing works as well. Flare must be fairly decisive, if not aggressive – that’s where you’ll burn the remaining airspeed – and as soon as you are in the ground effect, wings will suddenly start to carry you on, fast! Keep on pulling all the way back until the stick hits the bench – this will give you a correct landing attitude with cruise trim setting. At that point Merlin may be floating a bit sideways, but be careful not to overcorrect with the rudder, reactions would be swift. Adverse yaw is also there, so aileron work should be as smart and careful.

It is possible to add power and drag the plane in the ground effect indefinitely at fast idle RPM. Nose will be high, stick almost all the way back, ground swooping fast and close, but nothing else going on. Not bad as a confidence builder or when learning the proper touchdown technique, but a clear signal that any excess of energy will float you way down the runway.

After the touchdown, Merlin may porpoise a little bit, because of the springy gear and short tail, but there will be no serious attempt to swap the ends. Even if you do land slightly drifting or crabbing, a measured rudder movement will straighten the developing swing – which makes things so much easier than in case of the machines with long and heavy tails, combined with narrow gear.

You can land even on the side of a hill, or humped runway – and that wide and low-squatted main gear will simply roll you on, banked at a scary angle – but again, without attempting the ground loop. Just keep the stick all the way back and work the rudder as required, maintaining the overall direction of the roll-out. No need to think too much about the crosswind aileron inputs, the wind can’t do anything to you.

Merlin does have brakes, but they are not really useful – except if you really want to swing the tail around fast, or stand on your nose. Otherwise, I keep my hand out of the brake handle till the very end of the roll-out. Shutdown is a simple as a start-up – flip the switch and you are done.

Overall if you ask me why Merlin never bypassed in popularity other decent homebuilts, let alone the Golden Age vintages, my guess would be – it happened because of that Cherokee-like handling. You expect a small and light airplane to fly like a Cub, but it is not doing that. Instead, you get a solid hauling capacity, stable and slow cruise, with rather fast and long landings, plus a hefty price tag. Apparently that’s not what most of the people want from this sort of planes, but I won’t say that it is a Merlin problem – it does what it’s designed to do, and does that well.

Another thought is that Merlin may be too forgiving for the “hardcore” taildragger training – it allows you to do lots of stupid things without giving even a hint of punishing attitude. Lowly Cub will show you right away when you are trying to do something wrong – and give you time to work on yourself and fix the problem. Merlin will simply hum its way, dealing with your ham fists and dead legs like that’s no biggie.

Modern homebuilts market is saturated with very nice machinery, and it is still perfectly possible to acquire something like Aeronca Champ for the same low price. In this world Merlin will have to stay humble – but I will caution from overlooking it! This little machine could be useful and fun to fly, besides a generally outstanding build quality and large trunk. You can go some nearby places, land in the seriously bumpy airstrips and go camping with all the stuff you can bring. Than push the throttle – and fly away from that weird place without being scared by the obstacles. You’ll just need a bit more place to land than may be expected, but if a 150 can land there – you would be able to do that as well. And you would also finish the roll without wiping out the landing gear – then take off and go home safely.