Saturday, June 23, 2007

P-38 recovered from a glacier; resumes trip to England

This story from the IHT about a P-38 recovered from a glacier and restored, piece-by-piece, is just the sort of study hall boredom-killing tale I used to dream up in the 8th grade era. Wouldn't it be great if I found a plane no one knew about and could get it fixed up, and then I could fly it to Canada? Funny that it never happened, at least not along the dirt bike trail that cut behind the subdivision on the other side of the 7-Eleven in Midland, Michigan. I probably should've spent a little more time investigating more remote patches of ground — at least those within a day's ride on a BMX.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Turboprop makes repeated low passes; nonplussed runway apparently rejects them

This morning I went for a 10 mile run as part of preparation for the Indy Mini Marathon in May. (Find runner training minutiae absolutely riveting? Head to my VOX on the topic.) The run itself wasn't eventful, and conditions were nearly ideal: calm winds, sunny skies here for the first time since 1977, and a crisp 40-something temperature that made gloves necessary only for the first few miles. Neat.

But what caught my attention and wouldn't let go was a Beech King Air turboprop that seemed to be flying a racetrack pattern at low altitude above the northwest side Chicago neighborhoods I run through. It was white and blue, didn't appear to have any airline or government designation, and no, I didn't get the tail number of the truck, officer. But it was flying strange. Here's what I mean:
  • Planes don't loiter over this part of town. I live within 3 miles of O'Hare under a surface-to-10,000 feet column of tightly controlled airspace. Usually you only see commercial airliners on their way in or out of town and nothing else. As a pilot, I can tell you that this particular column is no man's land for anyone looking to futz around and sightsee. You're likely to end up with an F-16 or two as wingmen here if you don't have a reservation.
  • This guy was clearly on some mission, and appeared to be flying in an oval or circular track pattern. Again, no one does that here. They take off, they land. That's it. This close to O'Hare, no other flight operation normally makes sense.
  • Finally, I noticed he was shooting approaches to runway 22L. Repeatedly. This is a runway that doesn't see too many landings from the northeast each year, although a Lufthansa 747 did blot out the sun over my house once when it used this runway one Sunday afternoon.


    He made at least five passes that looked like approaches to 22L from the northeast, except that each one he made was just above treetop level. WAY too low to be a standard instrument approach, or even a visual approach. His gear were down every time.

I'd like to know what gives. Is this a standard test procedure of some kind for an ILS localizer suspected of faults? Anyone care to hazard an informed theory or two?


Friday, January 12, 2007

Skyjunk: It wasn't me

Saw this article in the Chicago Tribune — Plane piece crashes into woman's bedroom | Chicago Tribune — and immediately thought of the number of times I've flown the landing pattern there and never once thought to pitch an empty Gatorade bottle over the side. The photo of the gear/compressor/fan thingy that fell through this woman's bedroom ceiling, landing about two feet from her bed, makes you more than a bit anxious to think of something similar happening nearby. Occasionally, aircraft bound for O'Hare fly a pattern that tracks about 1000' southeast of our house. Next time I see an MD-80 on final, I'm gonna think about it.

Live in the Chicago area? Keep in mind that aircraft approach O'Hare and Midway from almost 360° around, so there may be some valuable parts available in your backyard soon!


Friday, October 13, 2006

AOPA combats inevitable MSM general aviation hysteria

Yesterday I posted about the Cory Lidle accident and pointed out that AOPA president Phil Boyer would have his hands full. Looks like he didn't wait long to put them to use. From AOPA's site:

Thursday morning, AOPA President Phil Boyer appeared live on CNN's American Morning with anchor Miles O'Brien, a pilot and AOPA member. Speaking from AOPA's headquarters in Frederick, Maryland, via the association's TV studio and satellite uplink, Boyer told the TV audience that a car or a truck would be a much more effective terrorist weapon than a small aircraft. "No small plane has been used as a weapon of terror," Boyer said. Then a few hours later, Boyer took CBS correspondent Bob Orr and camera team flying in Boyer's Cessna 172, to help him understand airspace.

He also wrote a rebuttal to an opinion piece that peddled the usual "Death from the skies?!" thesis that general aviation-based terrorism is an unchecked menace over American soil. If the comments thread below Boyer's post is any indication, a good number of citizens are getting sick and tired of being fed the same lines about safety and security ad nauseam.

One other note: USA TODAY gets flogged in the comments, but they are also hosting the blog that acts as a public base for debate around the issues. Hat tip to them for allowing two-way traffic.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Lidle Accident


In the chart above, you can see the blue border around the East River; that denotes the edges of the "uncontrolled" airspace which Lidle's plane was traversing. That is about as narrow as a band of designated airspace can get.
NY Sectional Chart taken from

I’ve been reading what I can about the Cory Lidle tragedy and I’ve come to the following conclusions:

  • Lidle’s and the flight instructor’s families have certainly lost the most. My thoughts are obviously with them.

  • General aviation has been dealt another high-profile blow to its credibility as a commonplace means of travel and commerce, regardless of what the eventual NTSB findings conclude. Phil Boyer, AOPA president, has his work cut out for him.

  • The New York Times has provided a glimpse into what might have gone wrong from a flight planning and management perspective, pointing out that the East River airspace in which Lidle was traveling northbound is a very narrow strip of sky for visual, non-instrument procedure flight. (See also the informative interactive graphic. I’ve also traced an estimated flight path in the inset chart graphic.) You can only fly up to 1,100 feet above ground level here. A well-known U-turn required to avoid entering La Guardia’s airspace around 86th and Roosevelt Island is tight and perhaps easy to take too wide if you are distracted, there is a strong easterly wind, or some other factor dominates your attention.

Right now, all I can say as a pilot is: I’m going to re-study my checklists and keep honing the brand of judgement that aggravates my friends when I conclude the weather isn’t safe enough for that cross-country trip to northern Michigan.

Update: Rich Karlgaard at Forbes makes an astute observation based on yesterday's observed weather in the area:

“Why was the flight taken? The clouds over Manhattan had bases in the 1700- to 2000-foot range. Winds were at 17 knots, gusting to 22 knots. It's certainly possible to fly safely in such conditions, but it takes more concentration. Now add to it the fact that Lidle and his instructor were flying in one of busiest and most constricted airspaces in the world. Even more concentration is needed. Your cup is probably full at this point, even with an instructor aboard. You have no margin for error if anything goes awry.”

That's exactly it. Assuming Lidle and his instructor were making that demanding U-turn, a ~20 knot westerly crosswind would have pushed any standard turn radius out quite a bit further because the plane is making the same turn it normally does, but within a moving air mass. The "highway in the sky" is invisibly shifting toward Manhattan, and as tight as things are in that corridor, the margin for error gets slimmer still in gusty weather. Add a low cloud deck and the maneuver box compresses to test pilot dimensions.


Sunday, May 7, 2006

My first "Semi-Complex" Endorsement

I got a signoff today for my first real new-aircraft challenge as a pilot: flying a single-engine aircraft with a "constant speed propeller" and advanced avionics, in this case the slim and speedy Diamond Star DA40 pictured below:

Why do I describe this as "semi-complex?" Well, your local FAA-approved haberdasher and CFI will tell you that a "Complex" aircraft features retractable landing gear, flaps, and a controllable-pitch propeller. The DA40 doesn't feature retractable gear, but it most certainly has the flaps and controllable-pitch prop, so it's a close-but-not-quite scenario. The real "complexity" is the prop, though — managing a controllable or "constant speed" propeller adds an incremental layer of complexity to pilot workload. The rough (and technically inaccurate) drivers' ed analogy is that it's like moving from an automatic to a manual transmission. By controlling the pitch of the propeller at climb, cruise, and descent, you can take more efficient advantage of engine power in all of those scenarios. You now have a "gear" for those situations that you didn't have before in a fixed-pitch aircraft, and a "transmission" gearshift of sorts exists in the cockpit to control the propeller's pitch. Previously, all I had were throttle and mixture controls, which were pretty simple to manage. Push in to go, pull back to slow down or stop.
So, I spent a good four-plus hours of transition time on this aircraft over the past several weeks: first to master the prop, and then to get my head around this:

glass cockpit

Yep — a completely digital cockpit. Dual 10" LCD monitors display primary flight instrumentation and just about the most feature-packed GPS moving map you're likely to see, Lexus and BMW owners included. The world-beating feature of the whole setup is live traffic plotting on that moving map; it displays other aircraft in your area that are participating in the air traffic control system, so you now have more than just your eyes to rely on in finding someone who might pose a hazard in your flight path.
Four seats and 145 knots of cruise speed means I can finally get somewhere fast with a few passengers along for the ride. At nearly four bucks a gallon and eight gallons per hour, you'd better get there quickly.


Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Going Over the Top

Kind of an interesting exploration of the use of Polar routes on commercial flights in today's Chicago Tribune. The fuel savings seem like a no-brainer, so I'm surprised they haven't been doing this more consistently since the early nineties, when Russia opened up its airspace. When I took my trip to Hong Kong, we went across central Alaska in both directions, hewing well south of the North Pole or even the open Arctic Ocean. Solar flares to blame? I'll never know.


Monday, March 20, 2006

"Yeah, but can I log the time as Pilot-in-Command?"

Pretty sure my life won't be complete unless I buy a ticket somewhere on EAA's B-17 Tour Schedule. This is the aircraft I've always wanted to fly, and if I can't fly it from the left seat, I suppose a waist gunner slot will just have to do. That date in Madison looks like a winner.


Sunday, February 19, 2006

Plane from my flying club makes emergency landing

Apparently, a Piper Warrior flown by my flying club, Northwest Aviation, experienced an engine failure shortly after takeoff and was forced to land on the Elgin-O'Hare expressway. Scary stuff -- sounds like the instructor tried to get the plane back to the airport but lost power too far out in the pattern to return to the field. I've never flown the Piper Warriors they have in their fleet — I'm partial to their Diamonds and the late-model Skyhawk SPs — but these are generally very reliable, easy handling aircraft forgiving of most mistakes, so this must have been an extremely unfortunate scenario.

The news report calls it a 1985 Warrior, but apparently it's a 1983 model. (Pretty cool that Google links directly to these pages if you enter an "N" number as your query.)

Sounds like instructor John Vashko did some pretty impressive work to get the plane down on the expressway without a) hitting cars or b) injuring himself or his student beyond "minor injuries, cuts, and abrasions." Remind me to triple-check those gauges during my next engine run-up procedure. It's so easy to get lazy and careless about your routine as a pilot when everything seems perfectly ordinary.


Saturday, February 11, 2006

Just what Chicago general aviation needs: more Daley

Hizzoner is at it again. Bush's revelation of the purportedly foiled terrorist attack on LA in 2002 has Mayor Daley fearing for the skies over Chicago all over again. I can tell you right now that:

  1. Any such no-fly zone would effectively kill general aviation in Chicagoland; GA accounts for significant traffic at Palwaukee, Du Page, Schaumburg, Aurora, Joliet, and even Midway, not to mention a dozen or more smaller fields that would fall within the TFR zone the mayor would want declared under the "umbrella" of O'Hare's existing airspace.

  2. Committed terrorists don't usually stop to ask ATC for clearance.

This economic and political ignorance in the name of perceived safety is infuriating. Surely you've spent your summers since 2003 biking along Lake Shore Drive, thinking to yourself, "thank God they had the sense to shut down that old menace, Meigs Field." Meanwhile, runway 4R at Midway Airport still points the noses of fully-fueled 737s and 757s right at the Sears Tower each day the wind is from the north. It's nearly perfect hypocrisy.

Do you know a pilot? As one myself, I now feel I haven't done nearly enough to make any elected officials understand that knee-jerk regulation doesn't help when the greatest threats to the system couldn't care less about the rules in the first place. Fortunately, AOPA keeps an eye on situations like this and does what it can by involving its members and lobbying on Capitol Hill. If the Washington D.C. ADIZ discussion is any indication, and given the FAA's ongoing investigation of the Meigs closure circumstances, it's possible the city could be fined millions (I doubt it'll come to a single penny). At least it's not up to Daley himself to redraw the airspace boundaries on his own; that's still the FAA's call.


Friday, May 13, 2005

Ghost writing the industry response?

I posted the following about two general aviation pilot's infamous errand within Washington D.C.'s highly restricted airspace earlier this week:
"I can tell you right now that a Cessna 150 is filed on every Al Qaeda cell lead's Thinkpad under "Martyr Operation aircraft of very last resort, Insh'allah." It weighs less than a Ford Focus and has a usable cargo load of about 300 pounds, excluding the pilot. Packed with C-4 or some similar explosive, sure, it could cause trouble. I think our foes are still thinking bigger than this, however."

Meanwhile, Phil Boyer, president of AOPA, the principal airplane owner/pilot's association in the United States, had this to say in interviews with the mainstream media:
"A Cessna 150 is an extremely small two-seat airplane. Even fully loaded it weighs significantly less than a Honda Civic. It's simply incapable of doing much damage," said Boyer. "From what we can tell, these pilots simply made the mistake of getting lost in some of the most complex and highly regulated airspace in the country."

Please. "Ford Focus" is so much more evocative. Plus, I was like, all specific and stuff with that usable load business. Get a blog affiliate network assembled and working on your behalf, Phil. Preach!


Wednesday, May 11, 2005

"Cessna 59 Bravo Charlie, what the hell you lookin' at?"

From this wire story about an airspace breach over Washington, D.C.:

"The incident began at 11:28 a.m., when Federal Aviation Administration radar picked up the aircraft, a small two-seater Cessna 150 with high wings, officials said. The aircraft breached the security zone over Washington, law enforcement officials said, prompting alerts across the city."

I can tell you right now that a Cessna 150 is filed on every Al Qaeda cell lead's Thinkpad under "Martyr Operation aircraft of very last resort, Insh'allah." It weighs less than a Ford Focus and has a usable cargo load of about 300 pounds, excluding the pilot. Packed with C-4 or some similar explosive, sure, it could cause trouble. I think our foes are still thinking bigger than this, however.

The airspace around the Capitol is delineated as an ADIZ airspace, which is basically barbed wire in the sky for general aviation pilots (like those of a Cessna 150). It's exceedingly well-documented and publicized for any pilot who opens a chart, calls for a flight briefing, or reads any aviation periodical. However, the fact that the government reaction to an aircraft of this size was to hustle every lawmaker of note out of his/her office and into a black Suburban convoy suggests that the Feds haven't figured out how to, er, nuance a proportionate response to security threats. As a pilot, I can see two sides of this one:
  1. Any legal pilot flying near Washington DC has to be nuts to come close to this airspace. In fact, it's printed with bright red hashmarks on a standard aeronautical chart.

  2. The government might not scramble $100M worth of security hardware every time a general aviation incursion occurs.

My conclusion? We live in an era that no longer believes it can afford common sense at any price. Sure, I'm probably just another pilot with a rant; I guess I have my reasons.

Update: Looks like these pilots were well-enough informed but apparently confused: "Troy was discussing with me last night after they made their flight plans all about the no-fly zones and how they were going to avoid them. He said they were going to fly between two different restricted areas." I guess I wouldn't even think of attempting that without a GPS.


Tuesday, March 29, 2005

One More Hong Kong-Related Item

This is something I've been meaning to post since I returned from Hong Kong, but I simply haven't had the time to do so.

I flew United to and from Hong Kong with their nonstop service from Chicago. It's about 14 hours in the air, and it's the sort of flight plan that pushes up against the comfortable limits of modern commercial air travel -- even if you're in upgraded business class. I was sitting in the upper deck section (highly recommended for this trip if you can score the upgrade with miles) and before our noon takeoff I managed to get a few minutes with the pilots and flight engineer in the cockpit. (Paradoxically, the everyday security paranoia that permeates domestic commercial service is a bit restrained overseas; at the gate they kept the cockpit door open and seemed happy to chat for a couple of minutes right up until they got word that everyone was on board and the flight was ready for an early push-back.) After showing me the obligatory cockpit copy of "Flying for Dummies" with all the expected yuk-yuks, I asked them a few questions about their flight planning approach and why there was no air traffic control on Channel 9 when the flight neared the arctic circle.

I got a few interesting tidbits out of them:

  1. The maximum takeoff weight of the fully-loaded 747-400 we flew is 875,000 pounds. Our aircraft took off at just over 874,000. (The pilot had me run the fuel weight calculation on my palm for him "just to be sure." I have a feeling they already knew the number by heart, but it was fun to play along.)

  2. They don't know, at takeoff, exactly how much runway they're going to need to get off the ground. They have some idea of the minimum, but everything depends on air density, how much fuel they've burned at idle, and some other factors they didn't go into. I found this extremely odd, since you have all sorts of performance charts to tell you how even a lowly Cessna will perform at a wide range of temperatures, altitudes, and weights. Something about jets makes all the easy math hard. I think Hong Kong's runways are 13,000' or better, so it's really not an issue, but I still would've thought they'd have more certainty.

  3. Channel 9 goes mute near the arctic because the pilots actually do position reporting using UHF radio (vs. VHF, which is in use at all the 'normal' latitudes). UHF is required to reach the nearest reporting stations somewhere in the icebox Yukon. Apparently, their UHF band is full of static and they'd just as soon spare the six of us listening to Channel 9 all that worthless noise. Thanks, guys.

When takeoff actually happened, I think we got off the ground at about the 9,000 foot mark. Knowing at that moment exactly how much mass that aircraft was hoisting into the low seaside overcast gave me some added appreciation for just how well designed (and piloted) commercial aircraft are today.

Once enroute, I decided to record some of the air traffic control communications near mainland China. I figured they would be different enough from the usual general aviation chatter I hear over Chicagoland that they'd be worth sharing. How did I record it? That was a fun hack to cook up:

  1. I own a pair of Bose Series II Noise Canceling headphones. A modified-but-mostly-standard 1/4" audio plug connects the headphones to the standard stereo outlet found on most modern aircraft seats. The key is that the headphone end is removable, so the headphone cable can also act as a general purpose cable with two plug ends. I tuned Channel 9, plugged into the jack, and then plugged the other end into my Powerbook's Line In jack instead of the headphones.

  2. I fired up Audacity, an excellent open source audio recording/remixing client. I probably could've used GarageBand, but Audacity was simply my choice at the moment.

  3. With a new sound file open, I hit record, selecting "22k Hz mono" as my recording format -- ATC transmissions are over VHF frequencies similar to those you use to listen to AM radio, so recording in stereo is a waste of bandwidth.

  4. I put Audacity into the background and let it record a few minutes of audio. I returned to the file later to double check the input level and found that it was surprisingly good -- I didn't have to tweak anything to get a smooth, normalized audio stream. Got my recording in one take!

I later edited the following file down from ten minutes to just under two minutes, saving the three most interesting exchanges (which are admittedly pretty hum-drum, but you pays your money and takes your seat for this show). Here's the audio:

(MP3, 1.6MB)

Labels: ,

Friday, January 21, 2005

The Palm for Pilots

Garmin has released theiQue 3600a — an updated version of their GPS-equipped iQue3600. This little number includes Jeppessen aviation database info, so it's valid for use in flight. I'm convinced Garmin released this based solely on my own uppity feedback; I was indignant that when they released the original 3600, it had no support for aviation. The addressable market for a device like this, of course, ain't exactly huge, so I spose it's no surprise Garmin didn't just rush in with a fix.

Looking at the screen shot of the device suggests that the snap-on "cradle" of aviation-related function buttons is a clever idea. You don't have to carry a too-bulky PDA around with you on the ground, and when you're in flight you aren't burdened with softkeys and pop-over display menus that would obscure your view of the map. Distractions aren't quaint in the cockpit.

As a pilot, I'm definitely interested in checking this out. $1099 seems like a steep price for any Palm OS device, but I paid almost that much for a GPS-only Garmin 295 a year ago. The iQue has a 320x480 color display, the new Garnet processor, and all my usual favorite Palm apps. I might still have a Palm in my work bag as well as my flight bag, even though "convergence" was supposed to mean everything goes on my phone. If I can get my hands on one I'll definitely write up a review.


Wednesday, October 6, 2004

My future in aviation business consulting is assured

United admits that I might've been onto something. Well, they didn't actually call me up personally and say as much, but c'mon. I thought this reorganization made sense a few million bucks ago.


Monday, August 9, 2004

My run-in with Law Enforcement in the age of Code Orange

I went to Midway yesterday to do some recreational flying. I pulled into the gated area that leads to the general aviation ramp (and my rental Cessna) around 5pm. Unusually, a guy in a suit with an earpiece stopped my car. He identified himself as Secret Service and asked me to come back in about 20 minutes. "Someone's coming in here and we need the area clear." I of course obliged, turned my car around, and waited across the street.

After about ten minutes, I noticed a 727 blur past on final approach with a large American flag painted on its tail; I figured this must be our VIP's ride. I walked from my parking spot over to the main intersection across from the airport entrance to get a better look at whoever this was going to be. (Midway travelers: this entrance is on the other side of the airport from the main terminal -- nowhere near the snarl of traffic on Cicero Ave.) About two minutes later, two large men in shorts and sweatshirts -- very undercover-casual -- approached me. The one with sunglasses said, "Mr. Show-bee, may we have a word with you?"
I said, "sure, um, how'd you know my name?"
"We're with the police. Do you have any ID?"
I thought this was curious since clearly he'd used his some of his superpowers to nail me already.
"Sure, here it is."
Sunglasses examines my Driver's License. His partner, wearing a white resort shirt and looking otherwise entirely un-policemanlike, eyes the general vicinity of me without ever making specific eye contact. Must've been a role. There's good cop, bad cop, and "cop? who's a cop?" I gather.
Naturally, Sunglasses is wondering why I'm loitering about.
"I was supposed to go flying this afternoon, but a secret service agent turned me back and told me to wait over here. So I did."
"Ok, I see. Can I see your pilot's license?"
I hand him my green and blue plastic FAA license. He admires the shiny hologram.
"Ok. We'd like to ask that you wait by your car. You can go back to the gate just as soon as you see all the cars leave. Trust us, you'll know when they're gone."
Not looking to cause unrest, I tell him I understand and head back to my car. Surely enough, at almost exactly 20 minutes after the Secret Service suit said it would be about 20 minutes, a black GMC Suburban posse that would make Tom Clancy proud emerged at Jeff Veen speed, followed by several strobe-laden squad cars. The casual cops get back into their green Dodge Caravan (with street plates and even a dealer frame -- think it read "Orland Park Dodge") and attach themselves directly to the motorcade. By now I figured this was Cheney or Edwards; the FAA hadn't issued any of the airspace flight restrictions that Dubya demands. When I finally got to the flight center, I saw Edwards' 727 sitting on the tarmac.
For some reason, it took me a while to put 2+2 together and figure out they knew my name because they ran my plates. I'm just glad they didn't say anything about my outstanding parking tickets.
After all of this excitement passed, my rented Cessna wouldn't start. I've seldom wasted a stranger hour.


Monday, March 29, 2004

i imagine it's hard to find a good mechanic for your MiG-17

From: - Aviation Portal - MiG-17 Crash:

"Searchers located Saturday the wreckage of a privately owned Soviet-era MiG-17 fighter plane that crashed, killing the pilot, while en route to the Arizona air show.

The body of George Cambron, 50, of Louisville, was found in the wreckage 12 miles northwest of Truth or Consequences, state police Lt. Pat Werick said.[...]First manufactured in Russia in the 1950s, the MiG-17 was used in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The FAA said the aircraft often are brought to the United States and converted into airplanes used for pleasure."

...50+ year old Soviet technology seems like an all-or-nothing proposition for the private sector: it's either the very picture of reliability-through-brutish-simplicity or certain doom.


Sunday, March 28, 2004

marc pokempner, photojournalist

In an interesting twist to an otherwise hum-drum week, the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association asked to use my photo and to quote some praise I wrote them in January in an upcoming issue of AOPA Pilot magazine. The praise was for flight planning product they offer free of charge to all members. Apparently it's going to be used in an "annual report" article of some kind. This came from deep in left-center field and was a pretty entertaining surprise. (The software, which I am still very impressed with as a benefit of being an AOPA member, only works with a valid member ID, otherwise I would suggest that anyone who has an interest in this sort of thing should download it and give it spin.) AOPA dispatched a freelance photographer for a scheduled "shoot" on Saturday; they wanted a picture of me "at my home airport," which happens to be Midway. I'm-too-sexy-for-this-Cessna / too-sexy-for-this-Cessna.


Now, this photographer was an interesting fellow and it turns out I should almost be ashamed of having such a vain indulgence sent my way when you consider some of the subject matter of his professional portfolio. Marc's done some impressive work in Chicago's inner city, documenting the plight of its homeless as well as its uplifting, legendary neighborhood blues music scene. He and I met at the general aviation ramp at Midway; Marc drove a VW van and had a friendly black dog, a shepherd mix i think, with him. I momentarily wondered if we were heading toward an airport police confrontation of some sort ("you don't seem to be hearing me, Lieutenant -- I do not work without the dog"), but he left the pooch to mind the van and observe the steady jet traffic working runway 4L, just on the other side of a nearby fence.

Marc spent about 45 minutes with me as we took some shots in a cessna cockpit I had access to, as well some others near enough to the flight line so that you could see major airline traffic trundling about in the background with me trying to meekly justify my place in the frame. I can only imagine that the surrounding environment is WAY more interesting on film than whatever glib expressions I brought to the part. Nontheless, I can't wait to see the pictures; if any ever become my property I'll post a couple here. Assuming the article in question will be online, I'll plan to link to that, too.

Photo-geeks: I don't have the hard details, but for the shoot, Marc was using a Nikon digital body SLR that had some ridiculously professional megapixel resolution value: 12 or 16M, I can't recall exactly. He shot with wide angle and telephoto lens bodies; I think at least one of them was from a standard SLR.


Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Good Luck with This One, United

Looks like Ted is coming to Chicago O'Hare. Not logistically surprising, given that United is ridiculously well tooled up for operations here. What strikes me as odd about this is how shark-infested the waters they're wading in are already. I thought Ted was a sun belt discount play only, bringing United's approach to discount flight to the west out of another powerhouse hub, Denver. Is United simply replacing its most profitable domestic routes with Ted service because that's the way the airline is eventually going to go? (Are they actually heading in a direction similar to the one I suggested a few days back? Oh for shame, ego.)

Maybe this is the start of a clinical product line cannibalization -- I can only hope Ted doesn't compete head-to-head with, well, United's service to their stated destinations (Tampa, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Vegas, Phoenix). But if Ted eventually becomes United's primary domestic arm and the new-look, long-distance fleet handles cross-continent and international duties, then that at least makes some structural sense. Thank God it's not my job to make the numbers work in that business. Yeesh.


Friday, March 19, 2004

SimCity, top this.

Some enterprising Microsoft Flight Simulator users have released a third party scenery package for Manhattan that rivals anything in the private sector, anyway, for fidelity and jaw-dropping realism. Having flown into Manhattan a bunch recently on business, I thought I'd see what was out there to enhance the look of the city from the somewhat blah default scenery Microsoft ships with FS2004; I wondered if someone else had rendered the city with all of its famous landmarks so that a VFR pilot like myself could take a realistic sightseeing trip out of LaGuardia on the ole PC simulator.

POW! I cannot believe the level of detail this team has lavished on the Big Apple. I mean, you could run an entire hour of SimLaw & Order (complete with opening credits Lennyism) on the ground here, by the looks of it. The only drawback I could imagine is that this is a massive framerate killer and might take a 3GHz box with the $400 video card to run at all smoothly.

Bottom Line: If you don't care about simulators, flight or otherwise, I still think you'll be impressed by the attention to detail.


Saturday, March 13, 2004

united's new livery

1) I actually like United's new look. I think the midline stripe, in graduated shades of blue, transitions nicely from the clean white top to the dark blue bottom of the aircraft. The only unfortunate point is the fact that there's really no accent color to counterpoint the general, well, blueness of the total design. that tiny bit of red in the logo isn't enough. A red-orange ring on the engine cowlings, or maybe on the trailing edge of the tail? Also, this brings United much closer to Ted in livery design, which may or may not be a good move. Delta and Song? Couldn't be more different unless Song flew Tupolevs instead of Boeings. In fact, the branding mash-up doesn't end on the flight line; is essentially with more orange paint. It's hard for me to think you're taking this discount thing seriously when you can't establish an identity that doesn't depend on the "old guard" parent's clout.
2) I agree with others who think it's madness that UAL is spending money on a general rebranding campaign at this stage in its fight for survival. Ted's a gamble I can see both sides of -- try making money in the new point-to-point game by starting with your most dominant hub. It's worth a shot. But do you need to be repainting your main fleet? If I ran United, I think I'd take it in the direction of "best overseas network: east and west." I'd sell off my domestic fleet and routes, maybe keeping Ted if I really believe I can make good pennies per seat-mile. I'd plow those revenues into new 777 and 747 leases, but keep an eye on the new airbus A380. My goal? Be America's best overseas and cross-continent carrier. Best service, best cost efficiency. Why shouldn't a stateside carrier take the Singapore Airlines motto of "More Anything? More Everything!" and make that work? United has international routes down to a cool science and the discount carriers just become a distant barking noise once they focus on global service alone. One other thing to consider: service matters -- not just price -- when you're on a plane for 8 or more hours. You can make your brand really mean something when the flight is a significant part of the journey's total time.
Sure, there are mortal risks with hinging a business turnaround on global travel in these days of terror threats and rogue states. And I have a feeling United's hellish labor structure and history would send my plan straight to the shredder. UAL employees, you tell me: would you prefer a leaner, internationally focused United to the belly-up alternative?


Thursday, January 8, 2004

Checkride Horror Stories

The final step in getting your pilot's license is the dreaded checkride: fly with an unforgiving examiner, demonstrate competence in several representative flight maneuvers, and simulate an emergency, among other tasks. Well, what happens if an actual emergency arises during the checkride? Shouldn't the student get a crack at actually managing it? Apparently not:

"On December 7, 2003, at 1600 Pacific standard time, a Cessna 172N, N739SU, lost engine power and collided with the ground while executing a forced landing 8 miles west of Snelling, California. The American School of Aviation was operating the airplane under the provisions of 14 CFR Part 91. The student pilot and a designated examiner were not injured, and the airplane was substantially damaged. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan had been filed. The instructional flight originated at Castle Airport, Atwater, California, at 1545.

The student pilot reported to the Safety Board investigator that about 10 minutes into his private pilot check flight, at 3,000 feet, the engine made a loud noise and smoke entered the cockpit. The smoke seemed to originate from the engine. The engine lost power and was not responding to throttle adjustments. The designated examiner took the airplane's controls and selected a green field into which to perform a forced landing. During the landing touchdown the nose wheel caught the ground, and the airplane nosed over on to its back. The aircrew safely egressed the airplane.

Source: Planenews Aviation News Portal

You might say, "Shobe, your life's at stake, put the damn thing in a professional's hands, you greenhorn." I'd reply, "why would you ever fly with me unless I can handle the same emergency myself?" It's not like the Cessna I'm flying on my own is Do Overs-equipped.


Friday, January 2, 2004

i'll be checking the wheel well a little more closely on <em>my</em> next pre-flight, that's for sure...

Slate's semi-matter-of-fact analysis, Do Jet Stowaways Ever Survive? - The dangers of traveling beneath business class, highlighted by recent headlines documenting same, just boggles the mind. There are a lot of things desperate people will try for a shot at freedom, but this just seems like can't-miss suicide. Shockingly, Slate claims a 1-in-5 historical survival rate from FAA research. (Since those records go back to 1947, I'm thinking most of the lucky bastards were hitching on low, slow prop planes.) I guess those are better odds than you'll get in a barrel over Niagara Falls. But still!


Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Planespotting for the business traveler.

If you fly a lot, you might start to take an interest in the different airplanes that get you from here to there. However, unless you're obsessed with mechanical detail in a way that has you making peculiar points at awkward breaks in casual cocktail conversation like I do, you probably haven't concerned yourself with the feature that sets an A319 and an A320 apart at a glance, or taken pride in calling a 777 from a 767 a mile out just by viewing the main gear. See what I mean about the cocktail thing?

But I know you probably want to demonstrate unusual savvy among your traveling colleagues and even wow the gate agent from time to time to max your odds of a longshot standby seat, so in that spirit I give you the following planespotting tips, absolutely royalty free. Use them to win bets, settle disputes, and otherwise fill dead air. Just be careful when you tread that fine line between conversationalist and know-it-all. It's a mighty thin one and I've got the road paint on my boots to prove it.

The basics

Disclaimer: This knowledge generally covers aircraft in service over the US 'cause
that's where i've spent 95% of my flight time.

1. The venerable 727

Where have the 727s gone? We always flew those to Disneyworld when I was a kid.
There are essentially no 727s (three engines in the rear: two on either side, one above in the tail) in frontline carrier service. They're all too damn old. This is a good thing, trust me, because some of those dogs probably had a few million hours on the airframe (including, possibly, the Trump plane I've seen parked at Laguardia this December) before they went to the boneyard. FedEx still flies cargo in them, but you deserve far better shipping insurance for your bodily self. Still, the 727 was at one time a ubiquitous commercial airliner, in service with just about every carrier worth mentioning.

Today, if traveling in the US, you're far more likely to see American Airlines' MD-80s and Fokker 100s plying the taxiways around the terminal. Northwest operates a fleet of DC-9s, which are for all practical purposes indistinguishable from MD-80s; they are just different series of the same basic rear twin-engine aircraft.

2. Tail-engined peers

MD-80 as flown by American.

This Fokker 100 is difficult to distinguish
from the MD-80, isn't it? If you're really into this, you'll note the
speed brake retractor arm nacelles (those two 'bumps') on the tail cone — the
F100 has 'em, the MD-80 does not.

Today, a large number of aircraft preserve this general silhouette -- cigarette-thin body, T-shaped tail and powerplants in the rear -- because it remains an aerodynamically efficient and cost-effective design. Don't confuse an MD-80, Fokker 70/100, or even a CRJ with the venerable 727 because of it, though. The sure tipoff is that third engine in the tail. There have only been three major American aircraft to integrate a primary engine in the vertical stablizer this way; the other two will get mention later on in this posting. So, unless you're on a charter to Cuba or standing in the Age of Flight exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, that's not a 727 you're looking out of.

Ok, I get it with the 727. But what about the 737? I can never tell those
from Airbuses.
Unless you fly a carrier that makes a big deal about its
homogenized fleet (JetBlue's all Airbus A320s, Southwest's purely 737s), you are
likely to get on a 737 or A319/320 if the flight's less than 1500 miles.
As long as the interiors are up-to-date, it'll be hard to tell them apart,
inside or out. Here are some keys to look for:

Tail. The 737's sweeps back at two discrete angles -- shallower at the
root, then steeper to the tip -- while the Airbus' tail rises directly
from the fuselage without incident. You've got it dead to rights on that
detail alone.

Wingtips. The A319/320/321 all sport Airbus' signature winglets, whereas 737-400 and
earlier series have unadorned wingtips. However, the upturned winglet found
on the 737-800, flown by ATA, is new twist that makes it a dead giveaway.

Cockpit. There are two "porthole" windows above the pilot and copilot viewports
on 737s -- a classic Boeing design. Airbuses have somewhat wider-looking
main panels, but no telltale portholes.

Engine nacelles. On today's
most common 737s, the engine body is not perfectly round but takes a more
elliptical, almost flat-bottomed profile, especially when seen from the
front. The fitting on the Airbus is much more cynlindrical.

Extra Credit: Telling Airbuses apart. If you really want to knock your Premier Exec 1K VP's socks off, keep this handy Airbus field identification tip handy: A320 has two overwing exits; A319 has just one. Unless you see two of them parked side-by-side, you won't likely be able to tell a 319 is a 319 any other way, even though it is a stubby little mutha. A 321 is a stretched 320 with no overwing exits, but 4 full-size exit doors. Huzzah!

3. A320, meet 737. 737, meet A320
the acute angle that steepens about 1/3rd of the way up the leading edge
of this B737's tail. Note: no winglets.

frontier A319s showcase the simple pleasures of nature. Meanwhile,
their tails meet the fuselage almost straight-on.
hard to do this point justice, but this photo sort of reveals the flatter
bottom and elliptical shaping of the B737 nacelle. Sort of.

this A321, the nacelle is pretty much flower pot-round. Also note that
snarky winglet.
Airbus A319. No "portholes" above
the main cockpit glass.
Boeing 737-300. Telltale "portholes" above
attentive-looking German in orange jumpsuit.

The 757 is an airplane I fly all the time on United, but damned if I can tell one from the ground. What's the deal there? What am I missing?
The 757 is an ungainly stork of an aircraft on the ground. It seems to prop itself up on hopelessly frail undercarriage when trundling about the terminal, but once those are folded up I think the 757 cuts a nice profile in the air (and offers a smoother ride, even in the rear, than smaller fowl like the 737 and A320). Here's how to spot one from the ground without a second's worth of doubt.

4. The thin-is-in 757, and the baby-got-back

767 has, I dunno, kind of a bullnosed-quality. Plus, if seen on the tarmac,
the wings appear to span about a quarter mile. They're huge.

5. Old Fogey Tri-jets

In this profile view of a Canadian L1011,
the intake's smooth incorporation into the body and tail of the aircraft
is apparent. An S-shaped duct directs that airflow into the body frame-mounted
tail engine. Beauty, eh?

how the tail-mounted engine mounts independently of the body
of the aircraft. And they said it couldn't be done.

vs. 767 The 757 has, pound-for-pound, the slimmest shape of any other plane
of its scale. If you look up and glimpse a very long and narrow shape
with two engines on the wing, smart money says it's a '57. 757s never look
stubby or compact and just a few glances at a 767 next to a 757 plainly reveal
the 767 as a much larger, fatter (and depending on class configuration, phatter)
aircraft. Look at the cockpit; there's a lot more cheek fat below the 767's
viewports. Meanwhile, the 757's underbody sweeps back almost horizontally
below the nose.

One other point on the 767 vs. the 777: They would be quite
hard to tell apart except for one indisguiseable fact: the 777 has six
wheels on each main landing gear truck; the 767 only has four. I think the
777's gear assembly is about the size of a Hummer H2, but it gets
about 6mpg better on the highway.

I'm old school. But I'm also gettin' old. I can't tell an L-1011 from a DC-10. Planespot them for me, dawg. Back to the topic of tail-mounted engines raised in our 727 coverage: The
Lockheed L-1011 (probably one of the best numeric names in commercial aviation)
and the DC-10 appear quite similar on the ramp of your favorite airport.
I say this because neither plane is still in service with a major carrier,
but I do see a fair number of DC-10s in FedEx livery. Anyway, telling L-1011s
from DC-10s is easy: you won't see an L-1011 unless you're flying a notable
carrier like "Hewa Bora Airways" or "Kampuchea Airlines." Yikes. That and
the telltale configuration of the aft engine. As you can see in Figure 5, the DC-10 configuration puts this engine body in the tail proper, while the L-1011 incorporates an "S duct" intake to a powerplant that's actually
part of the airframe proper.

I hope this information at least makes you take a second look outside the next time you're killing time at the gate. Let me know if you have questions not covered here! I do requests. In a future posting I'll tackle the Airbus A340 and several flavors of 747.