Quality or Quantity: How Do You Assess Your Flying Life?

By Scott Spangler on April 24th, 2017 | What do you think? »

Image result for snjAs a word merchant, I’ve learned a lot by reading obituaries because the good ones succinctly review a life by sharing its telling accomplishments, whether the subject’s notoriety is universal or unknown. The really good ones interview the subject before their passing and share what’s important to the individual. This got me thinking, how would I assess my flying life?

Thinking of all the pilots I have known and met over the past 40 years, most of them, it seems, summarize their individual flying life by quantity. Who hasn’t heard the hangar flying boast of those who claim to have flown so many thousands of hours and/or so many different makes and models of aircraft? These are good metrics of aviation experience, I guess, but they don’t tell me a lot about the pilot’s personality, what defines this flying life.

Honestly, I don’t know how many hours I’ve logged as a pilot or how many different makes and models I’ve flown, and I really don’t care. Because I learned early that tomorrow is never guaranteed; as I do every day, I wake up, I assess my flying life on quality.

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Thoughts on United Airlines Latest PR Mess

By Robert Mark on April 13th, 2017 | What do you think? »

Thoughts on United Airlines Latest PR Mess

Seems that United Airlines, our home town airline here in Chicago, has managed again to create another PR mess for itself. When I was still teaching media and communications at NU, I could only hope for situations like this to relate to my grad students about how companies should not treat customers. And yet, here it is once more.

What is this magnetism United seems to have for being able to take an already ugly customer service mess and turn it into chaos? Sure an airline has the right to bump people, but it was the methods United used to bump passengers that got them in hot water the other day, not just their policies.

I was invited on Tuesday to chat with our local NPR host Tony Sarabia about this mess, so give it a listen and tell me what United should have done, because after all, this is just my two cents.

Click here for WBEZ’s Morning Shift for Tuesday April 11,2017.

Rob Mark, Publisher

@wbez, @unitedairlines, @jetwhine

The Reality of General Aviation Nostalgia

By Scott Spangler on April 10th, 2017 | 3 Comments »

Image result for meigs field closedBasking in the warm breezes of Wisconsin’s first coat-free day of spring, I suffered a pang of aviation desire. It would be a nice day for any general aviation pilot to go flying. But in the hemisphere that surrounds my deck the only sights and sounds of flight were the robins feasting on sunbathing worms. This brought to mind all of the empty airports I visited last year on my Route 66 adventure, and for the first time I made a connection between them and the empty, boarded-up building on the Main Streets of their respective home towns. Like many, I have nostalgic memories for both, but one cannot exist without the other, and the revitalization of either seems slim these days.

Looking forward, I wonder for how much longer these forlorn airports will survive? If the small town doesn’t have the population and jobs to support Main Street businesses, there will not be any aviation-minded individuals around to support the hometown airport. Time will come when the town’s revenues will fall short of funding the services that the entire population expects, and the airport will cease to be a line item.

Other airports survive only because they are supported by Essential Airport Services funding, but the budget proposals floating about reallocate these funds to more politically advantageous recipients. Add the uncertain future of the contract tower program, and working with rough round numbers, it is not implausible that 20 percent or more of the nation’s public use airports will go the way of Meigs Field. Some may suggest that they will survive as destinations for business aviation, but if there are no businesses on and around Main Street, why would business need to fly in there in the first place?

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Aeronautical Decision Making and ‘Being Wrong’

By Scott Spangler on March 27th, 2017 | What do you think? »

Image result for being wrong bookAeronautical decision making is a key ingredient in aviation safety, but I’ve just finished an excellent book that has revealed a side to this important topic that’s little discussed. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz takes an in-depth look at why humans find being right so gratifying, and how maddening it is to realize we’re wrong, and wrong so often.

This is not a book for pilots, and the author doesn’t offer any aeronautical examples. But as an aviator, on almost every page I could relate the her examples to aviation, pilots, and the decisions she makes. Perhaps the most important advice she gives, which applies to all human endeavor, is this: “Regardless of age, we are more alert to the errors of others than our own” and “pointing out the errors of others give those people little reason to change their minds and consider sharing our beliefs.”

She starts by exploring human factors and error studies and makes the point that not all errors are the same. Being wrong on where we left our car keys, she says in one example, is not the same as being wrong on the existence of weapons of mass destruction. She then goes on to show that “error is the borderland between vigorous mental life and dementia,” that error is vital to the process of creation and invention, and that error is often the start of adventure (good and bad). Read the rest of this entry »

2020: General Aviation’s Coffin Corner?

By Scott Spangler on March 13th, 2017 | 2 Comments »

Image result for coffin cornerIn aviation “coffin corner” is where bad things come together. I learned the term long ago, reading about the U-2, in Francis Gary Power’s book, if I remember correctly. When flying at the upper edge of its envelope, a single digit separated the redline speed that could pull the wings off the fragile bird, and the stall speed, the minimum velocity needed for those wings to produce lift. While I understand the aerodynamics involved, the concept of flying with so little margin for error still boggles my mind.

Aviation, it seems, is facing another coffin corner, one best defined by a year: 2020. It may well be the apex union of challenges that might be inscribed on general aviation’s seed shrouded memorial marker at some forgotten, deserted airport. Mention the year 2020, and most in aviation immediately think of the January 1, 2020 deadline for being equipped with ADS-B. And that is, indeed, a challenge for all aircraft owners, one that poses a terrible decision: upgrade or sell the airplane on or after the deadline for some giveaway price.

This is where the other wall meets the mandate to form the corner. 2020 will begin the final stretch of the next presidential election, and what happens between now and then will surely play a huge role in the decisions every general aviator must make. Where to start?

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The Few. The Proud. The New Student Pilots

By Scott Spangler on February 27th, 2017 | What do you think? »

only-commitments-2On the road to our favorite brewpub for date night I noticed a new billboard for the U.S. Marine Corps: “We don’t accept applications. Only commitments.” The smallest member of America’s armed forces, it meets its recruitment goals by challenging volunteers to meet the Corps’ uncompromising standards. In other words: Not everyone can be a Marine. Becoming one is not easy. Do you have what it takes? Can you sustain your commitment when the rigorous training seems beyond your capabilities? Reflecting on my experience with the Corps during my naval service and after it, the Marines steadfast challenge to meet its standards might work equally well in recruiting new student pilots.

As the declining trend of student pilot starts suggests, and the roughly 80 percent who decide to pursue a less challenging activity before they solo or earn a certificate confirms, becoming a pilot is not for everyone. History suggests that making the training easier by eliminating its more challenging aspects—spin training and the recent amendment of how to teach slow flight come to mind—perhaps taking a lesson from the Marines will reduce the number who quit before certification. And in the process it might improve efforts to reduce accidents resulting from loss of control.

Posing this challenge will affect students and their instructors because the latter will have to change the way they teach.

Teaching maneuvers separately and with a rote by-the-numbers setup and recovery does not prepare students for real world situations. There are certainly many ways to accomplish this, and I had the good fortune to fly with teachers who employed several of them. One of the most effective was to discuss a situation on the ground, say a spin resulting from an uncoordinated turn from base to final, and then to make the point in the airplane. What made it effective was the true point of the teacher’s demonstration.

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Same Plane, New Name & Accomplishments

By Scott Spangler on February 13th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Exploring the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, I saw this blood red P-51C hanging from the ceiling, and I immediately knew that this plane had to be Paul Mantz’s Bendix air racer that finished first in 1946, and again in 1947.

AS-UH-7Getting close enough to read the name under the cockpit, I wondered who Capt. Charles F. Blair might have been? And what was the link to  Pan American World Airways? The white letters on the long cowling said this was the Excalibur III and not Mantz’s revolutionary racer.

Little did I know of this plane’s record-setting flights and its contribution to the Cold War fears of bombers and missiles loaded with Soviet nukes making their way to America via the North Pole.

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The FAA Lost Me at “Innovative Solution”

By Robert Mark on February 7th, 2017 | 2 Comments »

I was really starting to like the FAA the past few years, what with the Part 23 rewrite and passage if 3rd Class Medical reform. I saw them as more of a kinder, gentler agency … more let’s all work together for the greater good and that sort of thing … until a couple of weekends ago at least. That’s when the FAA performed one of those end runs around everyone, slipping a settlement on Santa Monica airport mess in under everyone’s radar on a Saturday morning.

The FAA’s deal with Santa Monica allows the city to chop up the airport’s single runway as soon as the ink’s dry on the necessary paperwork. That should shrink Runway 03/21 from 4,973 feet to something closer to 3,500, just short enough to make it useless for most jets and even some large chartered turboprops.

I suppose the agency was thinking the good news inside this “innovative solution” as the administrator called it, was that the airport will remain open for business until 2028, if the city hasn’t already driven everyone away by then of course.

But seriously … they see this deal as innovative?

Let me quote Administrator Michael Huerta. “Mutual cooperation between the FAA and the city enabled us to reach this innovative solution, which resolves longstanding legal and regulatory disputes. This is a fair resolution for all concerned because it strikes an appropriate balance between the public’s interest in making local decisions about land use practices and its interests in safe and efficient aviation services.”

A fair resolution? I’m struggling with this one. Sure municipalities ought to have a say in local airport operations, but what about this solution strikes anyone as innovative or fair? Read the rest of this entry »

Pilots, Aviation & The Paradox of Progress

By Scott Spangler on January 30th, 2017 | 7 Comments »

Image result for aviation automationA statement or situation that seems contradictory or absurd but may be true in fact is a paradox. “Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink!” is the paradox for mariners adrift in any ocean. For aviators, the paradox is that progress in technology that makes their flying lives easier is also reducing the number of seats for them in the pointy end of airplanes.If the paradox is not clear, it is the fact that as more and more machines replace human workers the population has increased, meaning more and more people are competing for fewer and fewer jobs.

Ultimately, “automation” summarizes the paradox of progress in a single word. It started with the Industrial Revolution and it continues today. There’s work, work, everywhere but not a job to be had because it’s all being done by machines that are more efficient and, in the long term, more economical.

Technology’s replacement of people is easily seen in aviation. It wasn’t that long ago that commercial aircraft had flight engineers, and before that navigators and radio operators. Looking forward, it should be easy to see a single person managing a commercial aircraft system, first from the aircraft itself, and then from a ground station.

Some will surely say they’d never fly on an aircraft managed in this manner. But aren’t we today cramming ourselves into commercial aircraft systems managed by the two operators who sit up front? To see the future, look back and connect the dots of technology from bonfires to beacons to satellites and from blind flying instruments to autopilots to flight management systems.

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An Airplane Geek for All Seasons

By Robert Mark on January 27th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

An Airplane Geek for All Seasons

I’ve always found keeping up with the demands of social media to be work, quite a bit of it actually. But I think Scott and I also see the work as a necessary effort. Who else is going to dig between the cracks of the aviation industry for stories you won’t hear anywhere else?

Blogging specifically, is an effort that’s come to feel a bit like AirVenture to me. We work to create great content, but what really keeps us going are the people our work brings us together with.

(left) Take this guy, Micah Engber.

We met after Micah, an avid listener to The Airplane Geeks, another growing chunk of social media I’m part of, sent a question about the Kestrel single-engine turboprop project at the old Brunswick Naval Air Station near his home in Maine. Micah mentioned that his 77-year old mom Harriet listened to the show too and in my inimitable way, I managed to stick a shoe-covered foot in my mouth with a comment about her being the oldest listener we’ve ever had … or something like that. Read the rest of this entry »