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.

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 27 2009

Flight Training Is Over…

I’ve passed the PPL flight test this week. Interesting feeling – tired and annoyed, happy and pissed, with a strong desire to quit… You really have to get enough of the flight training business to bring yourself up to the flight test standards. If your daddy’s rich and you don’t need to work – things can definitely go smoother. Otherwise the torture extends. But anyway, I am glad that it’s done now.

Interestingly, the test itself resulted to be fun! I have learned a great deal while talking to the examiner – luckily this guy was open to questions and provided me with excellent feedback. If the idea of “learning something new during the exam” sounds strange to you, think again. Are you sure you really know everything your flight examiner will ask you?

In my case, the most interesting things were totally out of the book syllabus. For example, I was trained to dip to the runway immediately after clearing the obstacle – which could have failed me immediately. I was also taught to build the route with checkpoints every 10 miles or so, flying at about 3500 feet – this was laughed at by examiner and a productive discussion about how to make navigation fun and safe followed. In the air, I quickly discover that maneuvers could be combined, not displayed in sequence. The “Training Manual” precautionary landing procedure was simply ignored in favor of doing the things realistically – and it cost me a lot to switch my mind and try to do the best right in the air, unaware till the last moment…

I mean, we are supposed to know a lot. But complete lack of emphasizes on the critical things results in a huge pile of information garbage accumulated in our brains. We memorize and forcefully implant in our mind tons of curious details, skipping or barely mentioning the really important ones. Sometimes taking them for granted – like the time to maintenance written on the dispatch board. Sometimes seriously believing that knowledge of the airway width is as important as knowledge of which three mandatory weights should be used in the W&B calculation.

Think about it. The student really has no exact idea of what the examiner will ask him. We really try our best to discover this beforehand! We query those who passed about the questions they were asked. We try to get some information from our instructors – freaking them away because now they believe we are not ready for the test. Every question to another student results in us trying to learn something we think we were missing. Every question to the instructor ends up in the frantic order to “study more”, followed by a nice add-on measures like flying some extra hours.

The only thing we really need to know is what exactly is expected from us. Which errors are critical and which will be barely noticed by an examiner. What will fail the test and what will only result in a side comment? And guess what – only the Class 1 instructor, who actually exam people can help you with this. Is your instructor a Class 1? No? Go get one and make him fly a mock-up flight test with you. This would be enlightening, guaranteed 100%!

There is also a huge confusion about flying solo. While a good confidence builder, it is actually a huge negative in a sense of flight training. You just learn a lot of mistakes. You think you know something, then you go dual and find out that your money was spent learning bullshit. So don’t fly more than mandatory hours, concentrate on going dual and draining your instructor out of hints and information! You will have enough time to fly solo later on. It is just fun, barely useful after the initial 3-4 hours of discovery.

Maybe the most important advice I can give you based on my own experience, is – fly the day before you go to the exam. Do it with Class 1 instructor and ensure you are really good. Use the same plane, same POH, memorize only the mandatory information and know as much as possible about the subjects you’d be asked for. Ignore, disregard, and just skip anything else! It is better to be solid in all critical moments and pass for sure, than have in your head a lot of fun stuff but be nervous and full of fear for the unknown. Trust me, I was nervous as hell and managed to spoil the things I never do wrong while calm. And I do know a shitload of stuff, but skipped quite a bit of crucial items. This could have been easily prevented, knowing in advance and in detail what I understand now, post-factum.

Go prepared, know your future, relax and enjoy. Flying is fun, even after those painful hours of training. Here’s one more freebie – a little checklist of things to prepare for the flight test. Based on the Cessna 150/152 numbers, please ensure that you’ve been using those from the POH of the plane you’ll fly during the exam. Good luck!

Jul 31 2009

Canadian PPL Written Test (PPAER)

I’ve passed it. Yoo-hoo! 🙂 That was a tough one, though not at all as scary as I was expecting it to be. Looking back, there are some very important moments that could have saved me a lot of nerves, knowing them before the very beginning:

Darned ground school. This one is simple. It’s like a doctor – he doesn’t want you to be healthy, so he’d continue to have a paying patient, but he doesn’t want to see you dead either – especially from his own hands. So the smart doc keeps his customers in a persistent unhealthy state, guaranteeing the business on the long run.

Ground schools are just like this – they don’t prepare you for the immediate success, so you’d have to pay for additional briefings, buy additional books, etc – but they do provide you with all the mandatory stuff. If, after wasting your time and money on the ground school, you put considerable effort in your homework – you’d probably be okay. I was. But it’s definitely not the way to go.

Conflicting expectations. You assume that Transport Canada wants from you to know this and that. “From the ground up” (or other similar book) insists that you should know exactly what’s written inside it. Authors of the local ground school training course and creators of the follow-up exams have their own opinions on what you are supposed to know.

So you come to the end of the day with a huge, expensive and useless mess in your head. There is no way to understand what you should have really expect from yourself, before attempting the exam and analyzing the outcome. The closer you can approach to a real exams and questions from them, the better you can set your expectations. How to do it?

Context! To be successful, methodology of the self-paced study should be built around those three fundamental constraints:

  • Safety. You really need to know some stuff to fly without risking the human lives and property loss. This knowledge includes the right of way and cruise altitudes, validity of the pilot and airplane documents, map reading and navigation, weather basics and forecasts decoding, general aeronautics and human factor. You should have a really solid and hopefully detailed idea about everything you’ll need to safely fly from A to B;
  • Terminology. Use the one from Transport Canada – find it in the CARs and sample exams, not the books or ground school materials! For example, use “steep” and “shallow” for lapse rate, not “high” and “low”. Disregard the US-biased wording, use Canadian – that’s what you will use during the exam! This is especially important for the students with English as second language;
  • Relevance. Don’t waste your time in learning everything you could possibly find in the books – concentrate on the mandatory topics, have them implanted in your head. There is a lot of knowledge that will only be useful on the later stages of the pilot’ career – lack of them will not cost you any serious points in the exam, while time and effort wasted on learning them will drive you crazy.

Obviously, it is your “teacher” task to filter out unnecessary stuff, emphasize on the most important aspects, help you approach the study in an organized manner. Good set of books (and I mean good set of books, not those on sale in your school’ pilot shop) is mandatory and rather individual. Different people understand different explanations, there is no “one size fits all” books – especially for self-paced study. But… I just don’t want to repeat myself again and again – there is no such thing as “teacher” in the flying clubs. Only instructors, hopefully smart enough to understand the essential concepts I was talking above.

Primary value of the Canadian PPL exam is the fact that its questions are offered randomly, so there is no dumb-ass way to blindly remember the answers. Another good thing about this exam is that it actually covers all the private pilot needs – from flight planning to airspace handling. Very good! And, equally important, there are almost no stupid terminology-based questions that require from you to memorize nonsense just for sake of it. There were literally no lazy fart questions like: “Is this thing called Registration or Identification plate?” Good job, Transport Canada!

How much time have I spent preparing for the written? About three months, added to the base of the already extensive general aeronautics knowledge. How much of that time had I lost, digging through useless “tests” in my local flight club? More than a month and I’m seriously mad about it. Plus a month of the ground school, of which I was able to rescue only a very limited amount of usable knowledge – and trust me, it was not an easy task…

Results? 84% pass mark on the first attempt – with less favorite item (meteorology) hitting the 93.3%. I know I could have done better. I clearly see the weak areas and know how to deal with them. What leaves a bad taste in the mouth is the fact that knowing beforehand all I discovered through experience, I could have use my study time way more efficiently.

And now… Freebee! 🙂 It is a little cheat-sheet I’ve created while preparing for the written. Creation of such documents helps a lot when you need to memorize an initially meaningless bunch of rules and numbers. Take in account that CARs are constantly changing, use it as an example and feel free to create your own one while studying. Good luck!

Jun 17 2009

The Choices We Don’t Have

Before starting with my flight training I loved to read those articles about “choosing the right flight school”, “choosing a good flight instructor”, etc. Written by experienced pilots, they looked as smart as it can be – information provided apparently covered the topic in and out, leaving no space for doubts. But when I finally make it to the aerodrome, such articles somehow lost almost all of their attractiveness. Thing is, they represent the flight school’s point of view, and any student pilot quickly discovers that those institutions are more proficient in draining his pockets, than in anything else.

Maybe such wording looks a bit harsh but hey, how frequently have you seen that same sequence: A newbie pilot is running around, eyes full of joy, telling anyone who’d like to listen about his new hobby, than became silent, than depressed, than quit? There is some ugly statistics on the net, but I am not talking about it right now. My question is – why such things happen? I think that student pilot prospective should be more useful to understand the situation, than that of the accomplished flight instructors’ musings…

The most important thing to keep in mind, there is an inherent lack of choices for the consumer. Even though about half a dozen airfields and airports may exist around more or less important city, half of them at best might be suitable for the flight training. How happens? Let’s look at it a bit more in detail:

Commuting. Unless you are lucky to have a “city airport” inside your town, you will have to reach out there somehow. Say you are driving – then prepare for the expensive airport parking and, obviously, the gas used. Say you are using the public transport – add at least twice more time to make it to the airfield, plus price of the tickets back and forth. How much? Calculate the “typical” 60-70 hours of training, about one hour a day, add a month for the ground school and another one for delays and cancelled flights. Starting to get some interesting numbers? That is correct, and don’t forget that commuting is time and nerves consuming. There is nothing good in being in a bad shape even before getting in the plane, but that’s life in most cases.

Safety. Every flight school will talk a lot about safety, but check their records in the Transportation Safety Board archives. For any flight training institution that has been around for a while, there should be accidents and incidents – study them. Off-airport landings due to engine failure mean inadequate maintenance. Mid-air collisions or unway incursions happen due to the lack of flight organization. Look at their airplanes – do they have their technical papers accessible and correct? Taking all that in account, would you save a couple of bucks while learning to fly on the Moe’s airstrip, in his one and only plane, with the owner playing a role of an instructor? Your choices are getting narrower again – and not because you are choosing from equal, but rather striving for essential!

Schedule. If the school doesn’t have a bunch of airplanes and instructors readily available, you will have a hard time trying to sync your schedule with that of the flight school. Your training will took forever, you will fly not when you are ready and willing, but when there is a plane and instructor available. Every next time you’ll get airborne you will have to refresh first, learn more second – which is highly inefficient and annoying. Annoyance and inefficiency drive frustration, which leads directly to depression and quit, simple as that.

Prices. There is a lot of non-advertised spending in flight training. A lot! Think about it – first you need to calculate the number of hours you will fly. Typically 60-70, but your mileage may vary. Add applicable taxes. Add the flight instructor fees as those are not included in the aircraft rental price list. Add the pay-per-debriefing fees, unless you don’t want to speak with your instructor before or after the flight. Add the ground school price. Add the headset and appropriate eyewear. Don’t forget about the books – they are expensive as hell but you will not be able to find really valuable stuff on the web, and most of that reading is mandatory. Then goes the maps, charts, plotters, calculators, etc… By the way, do you know how much you will pay if you accidentally damage the school’ airplane while training? What is the insurance policy for planes and people inside? Are you aware that there is a +20% difference between the Hobbs time and air time and you will pay for the first, not the last? What’s the amount to pay if you will have to cancel the flight? Find it out – preferably before getting in.

Instructor. This guy may not be necessarily smart, fun, positive and compassionate. Mostly he will just need to build hours for his ongoing category. You will pay those hours for him, plus applicable fees that will make the flight school profit. Literally no instructor has a formal education in teaching. He will obviously have no idea about human psychology; neither understanding of what’s going wrong with you. Simply put, he would not be able to teach. Period. Think about your flight instructor as a lifesaver that hopefully will not permit you to crash while learning on your own, and with a bit of luck will provide you with some very valuable hints – that is as much as you can dream about. In the absolutely best case this guy may become your first connection to the rest of the flying world, so good relationship is of utmost importance. Asking him difficult questions or making him work out of the cabin for free is definitely not the way to go for that matter – you will only make him suspicious and annoyed. Swapping instructors back and forth looking for the “best” one will also create you quite a special reputation in the school.

Public. Every airport contains its own “layer” of local people – flying and hanging around. Those guys are your network. If you will ever need to be comfortable in the airport, get some interesting flying proposals, latest internal news, you will need to become friends with those guys. As any closed circle they will be reluctant in the beginning and criticizing all the way, joking about your errors behind your back. Are you ready for that? Are they ready? In most cases this would be an obvious pushing of the square peg in the round hole, and you will have to leave with it or leave the place.

Romance. Non-flying public frequently have a funny belief that flying people are special. Highly trained, intelligent, physically fit. Even more, those “chosen ones” are supposed to be in love with their romantic profession and happy to share that attraction with brother souls. Well… Simply put, for most of the professional pilots their work is a boring routine with some hidden danger. Complex, yes, but all the romance has been lost in the very beginning of the career. So if you go to the airport expecting to see a bunch of sky-lovers, happy to embrace you just for being similar to them – forget it, please. Not only you will look stupid, you will neither gain anything from that. Even if those pilots you’d like to share your feelings with are really dedicated to their profession, mystery of flight is not there any more.

All this doesn’t take in account your medical conditions which may impose some ugly limitations and obligations, making the customization of your flight training even less possible. Overall, above mentioned factors practically eliminate any “choice” in a market sense. You are not looking for the best; you are trying to get the less of the worst while still staying economically sound. You will have to – otherwise you would not be able to make it even to that minimal number of hours necessary to pass the exams for the license. Unless you are explicitly rich, any possibility of tailoring the flight training environment to suite your needs is doomed, and you should mentally prepare to get as much as possible from as less as acceptable. And even the money will not always buy you the best – simply because there might be only the mediocre stuff around.

Now you may ask – why the hell am I continuing to suffer through all that disconcerting stuff? The answer is, after checking out about a dozen of flight schools and meeting personally with at least two dozens of flight instructors, I was finally able to find the sweet spot. Nice, though pricey, flight school in a 15 minutes walk from home. Excellent flight instructor – fun, smart and knowledgeable. Training aircraft in abundance and in a good shape. Which means – this is not some sort of Holy Grail I’m talking about, but rather a quest for finding the optimal in less than encouraging environment. If you are dedicated enough, you can find your way to the skies, too. If you are not, probably it would be better to stay on the ground anyway… Good luck!

May 24 2009

First Solo

Task completed yesterday, at 8:30PM.

Mar 26 2009

Class 4 Aviation Medical in a Slow Motion

How much time, you think, might take an aviation medical exam processing? Try your best guess! Like a couple of days? Maybe weeks? What about a month? If you think it’s that fast, check out my story…

First things first – you need to find a doctor. Special doctor, with a license that permits him to perform those medical exams. Where to find one? First guess is – on the Transport Canada website… That’s what I’ve done. Wrong. The list was small, and just a couple of doctors were working in the Downtown. To make things funnier, their prices were about 250 bucks a visit. Regrettably, it doesn’t occur to me ask at some FBO – they always have around their “own” doctors who will do the same favor for something like 140 bucks. Quite a difference, right? But it’s okay for a newbie; let us try to book an appointment with those Downtown examiners!

I’ve called one of them in the beginning of December and got my appointment about a week and a half later. The doc was okay – nice guy, looked knowledgeable, though I had a feeling like he’s not seeing the pilots that frequently. But anyway, he sent me through the perils of a pretty generic medical exam. Professional level of the people conducting the trials looked for me somehow doubtful. Those guys looked like dummy technicians, and not the best ones. The girl that was trying to check the state of my eyes messed up with the form – confusing right and left eyes. I believe they should pass some kind of training before they get those medical jobs, shouldn’t they?

But the real fun began when my Medical Examiner decided that an additional eye exam should be done. Not surprisingly so, because to make the things more complicated I am monocular – which peculiar condition requires some extra attention. So the doc just completed a generic physical examination and deferred my application until I pass an extra eye exam. How serious should it be? Well, “just any common eye exam, you know…” I guess I did know, but that proved to be wrong.

I’ve booked another appointment in the common eye clinic and immediately hit the swamp – it sounds funny, but in Canada there are two separate breeds of eye examiners – ophthalmologists and optometrists. Both call themselves “doctors”, while in fact only the ophthalmologists are the real ones – others are like a second grade beings. I discovered this while reading the instruction provided by CAM; it clearly stated that my first appointment should be done with an ophthalmologist, while the following could be performed by those second grade guys. Didn’t grasp the difference immediately, my bad!

So the wrong appointment to optometrist cost me a couple of weeks more, plus a couple of weeks before were spent waiting for the additional eye exam papers to be sent from the CAM. My second grade doc forwarded me to a real one, and this appointment took another hefty month of waiting! Finally I’ve made it to an indicated specialist and passed the same set of eye-checks, though apparently with a higher rated supervision. Two bad news followed: First, my real doctor had no idea about that aviation stuff, so I did my best to explain what supposed to be done with those papers. Second, even the real doc was unable to do all the tests by herself, so she sent me to one more extra eye exam.

If you are already tired reading it, imagine how I felt waiting almost a month more for the following appointment! This one had to be performed in a huge hospital. Receptionist erred twice while creating my access card – putting the wrong address, because there system had no sync with OHIP database, then setting my birth year to 1912. Well, funny, you know. Anyway, after obtaining the card I arrived in the laboratory, only to discover that the doctor that should do the test was not there. Probably another second grade dude… His secretary sent me to spend some forty minutes in the lobby, in case the doc returns, but he did not. Another second grade dude made the test instead, happily advising me that he have no idea about the first grade doc that sent me there, but he’d find out, for sure.

Well, no brainer to guess that he did not, correct? When I’ve called the ophthalmologist’ office two weeks after (I know, but I was busy – a job and other things to do, you know), her secretary told that they have not received any results. Oops. Maybe he’d check it out to see what’s going on? Yes, sure, thanks. And here I am – three months and a half later, waiting for the freaking medical that had to be completed by a first grade doc, than sent to the CAM, then worked on it there, than a conclusion would have to be made, than the CAM people should sync with Licensing to finish the paperwork and – hopefully – provide me with that Cat 4 Medical. That easy, that funny…

And you know, guys, what is pissing me off the most? Phone calls and faxes. I mean, most of these people are using their computers as typewriters only – without any sync between their patient databases – and they barely do emails or calendar reminders! You really need to call them, and track the state of every piece of paperwork, and understand where the broken links are, and help them to fix those, and wait, wait, wait… I guess it would be easier to track the whole process relating to the single unified database with all my personal data inside. That of OHIP may work, or even better if the State will make an effort to maintain such unified healthcare base. I guess it would be nice to use the automatically sent email reminders to push the people around and pursue them to do what they are paid for. Obviously I guess that sending papers – specifically the empty forms – by email would be much faster and cheaper, than by Canada Post!

But what positively puzzles me is that the whole system looks so pathetic even compared to my Latin America references… In Argentina, for example, they have dedicated clinics which do a complete cycle of pilot medical examinations. No “second grade doctors” or goofy technicians, no stupid banging around the foreign hospitals and laboratories for additional exams, no waiting for weeks and months, no strange questions like “what should we do with that form you brought?”, no manual process following… And the price of such service is cheap, as well as the taxes – sure, we are speaking about a “third world” clinic! So what are the First World guys paying their money for?

Feb 22 2009

ROC-A is a Pain, and for a Good Reason

After successfully completing the PSTAR (49 out of 50 in ten minutes, enjoying the process) I was expecting the consequent exams to be the same fun. Wrong mine.

First thing noticed was a complete lack of any surrounding information. Comparing to the PSTAR, with all 200 questions on public display, excellent websites who comment each and every one of them, RIC-21E looked empty. You’ve got 20 pages of some barely interconnected definitions to memorize, and that is it!

I believe that something that is called a “Study Guide” must provide exactly that – guidance, a set of explanations, at least some kind of emphasis on the most important elements… Exam preparations should be the ultimate learning experience! Even if they ask you just a fraction of the questions studied, you should be ready to answer them all, and that is the idea.

So I’ve reached online, but find nothing. Except for this site – which is nice, but not a replacement for the RIC-21E weak content. There was a RIC-20 document on the Industry Canada website, that outlines the examiner tasks – but even this doc is just a set of some duly “recommendations” for the completely abstract examination case. I’ve desperately tried to memorize the whole Study Guide stuff and that was it.

The real exam in my case resulted to be a bunch of multiple choice questions and a dozen of free-form written answers. Roughly half of the questions were corresponding to the RIC-21E stuff. Roughly another half was just barely similar, and my guesswork in that case was not that brilliant at all. Free form answers were even worse – even the basic “mayday” call format was described differently in the Study Guide and in the answers check! Come on IC guys, can you have at least this one straight and clear…

Frustrated and annoyed, I’ve passed, scratching the bottom. Adding insult to the injury, planted some really goofy errors on my own – so not to blame the preparation materials only. 🙂 Overall experience: sucks. The whole theme is really important and I would like to get the best of it. Still hope to grasp the answers elsewhere – they say that “From the Ground Up” contains a good chapter about communications, and there are some classic US books about the same… Will check it out. Any other suggestions?