Enstrom Helicopter Blade Maker

By Scott Spangler on June 25th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

In the simplest terms, a helicopter’s rotor blade is a wing that generates lift by flying in a circle. But the similarity between a wing and rotor pretty much ends at the airfoil because the forces acting on each of them is vastly different. Imagine flying an aircraft that is constantly trying to shed its wings through the centrifugal force of normal operations. From building airplanes small and full-scale, I know how the skeleton of the wing deals with the forces of flight when fixed in one position. But when it comes to wings that fly in a circle, my understanding is destitute. Enstrom Helicopter Corporation, which for 60 years has been building piston and turbine helicopters in Menominee, Michigan, just up the coast from Green Bay, said they could fix that.


On the wall outside the Leland Burdue Training Center on the second floor of the Enstrom factory at the Menominee-Marinette Twin Country Airport (MNN) are two rotor blades. It’s clear that like the first propellers, the first rotor blades were carved out of wood by artisans of the drawknife and spoke shave. This long, wooden aerodynamic blade probably lifted one of Rudolf “Rudy” Enstrom’s prototype helicopters to a hover sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s. “We’re really not sure,” said Dennis Martin, director of sales and marketing. “A family member found this in a barn [after Rudy passed on September 25, 2007], but we’re pretty sure it flew” on one of his early prototypes, which employed a two-bladed teetering rotor system.

Tool marks are visible beneath the worn black paint on the yellow-tipped wood blade. Beneath it is a seamless black-and-white striped metal blade. It is one of a trio that creates the fully articulated rotor system on the piston-powered F-28F and 280FX and the Rolls-Royce turbine-powered 480B. The rotor systems are essentially the same for all models, and together the main rotor systems have logged 4 million flight hours without a catastrophic failure.

Building Blades

Enstrom-42The wood and metal blades have two things in common. Both are 16-feet long give or take, and artisans make both. Working what looks like an orbital sander loaded with a fine abrasive that seems to be polishing the metal is the leader of Enstrom’s blade shop, Ken Clark. Asked how many blades he’s built, Ken furrowed his brow for a second. “I’ve been here 32 years, more than half my life,” he said. Founded in 1959, Enstrom has been in business for 60 years, “So about half the number ever made.” That would be approximately 3,200 blades, with a birthrate of 12 per week.

“I have a couple of guys who work with me, and we make the tail rotor blades, too,” Clark said. When called for, another couple of workers join the crew. With 150 total employees, most of Enstrom’s technicians are cross-trained in several departments, and the blade shop is one of the more demanding studios. “This is an art,” said Clark. “This is nothing anyone is going to teach you in school. To take a guy fresh, it’ll take about seven years to teach him everything.” His apprentices have been working with Clark for about two years, and like many of the skills Enstrom’s artisans employ, their education is on the job.

Enstrom-47Given the forces involved, I expected a more complex design. But Enstrom blades are built around an extruded D spar leading edge. Two sheets of 2024 are bonded to the recesses on the top and bottom of the spar, and at the training edge. “There are no ribs, no honeycomb, they are hollow all the way through,” said Martin, but the blade’s interior is epoxy primed to prevent corrosion. There are some doublers at the blade’s root, where the grip that connects it to the hub is bonded in, added Clark. He’s never counted the steps involved in building a blade. “It doesn’t matter; it’s got to be done either way.” The most challenging part of the process is, however, setting the tip cap rivet. “You’re almost done with the blade, and one wrong hammer—and it’s scrap.”

Enstrom-46All of Enstrom’s metal blades have been built in the same fixture, which holds the pieces in place, forms the fully symmetrical airfoil, which includes a 7-degree twist down near the tip, and electrically heats the bonding seams and the entire fixture, with a box that encases it once all the pieces are in place. It takes an hour to warm up, it spends an hour at the perfect adhesive bonding temperature, and it takes an hour to cool. The twist, Martin explained, comes into play during an autorotation, a helicopter’s engine-out glide. Air passing through the center of the rotor disk turns the blades, and the outer portion provides the lift.

The relatively simple design blade wasn’t its only surprise. With so many rotating parts working in critical concert, their lifespan counts the hours of operation. Asked how long a rotor blade lives, Martin smiled: “97,500 hours. Effectively, they are on condition. There’s no calendar life, no hour life. They will last as long as they are maintained. The oldest calendar set that I’m aware of has been flying since 1973. The highest time I’m aware of is 22,000 hours. If you take care of the blades, keep them clean and corrosion free, they’ll last forever.”

Enstrom-44Another question Martin often hears, he said, was about composite blades. He keeps his answer in a green, four-drawer file cabinet in the corner of the blade shop, in a drawer labeled “Broken Blades.” Halfway expecting some Harry Potter magic to produce a 16-foot blade, Martin instead pulled a deformed tail rotor blade out of the drawer. “This guy had a bad day,” he said. “But he still had something back there doing work for him. He put the helicopter back on the ground safely.” While the aluminum was bent and cracked, the bonding adhesive was unbroken. A composite blade would shatter and shred itself to an ineffective stump.

Blade Matching

Enstrom-43“Everyone thinks you just throw the pieces in the fixture, and it’s magic,” said Clark. “But there’s a lot you have to do to make sure it comes out right.” Quality control begins before the pieces get near the fixture. Enstrom helicopters have mechanical controls, so they are sensitive to blade balance. “If the blades have different weights, they will fly differently, so we weigh every spar and rout the inside of the D to equalize the weight. After we build them, we match them in sets of three,” said Martin.

The birth certificate of every blade is the record of several hundred measurements and a profile of the entire blade. This data is fed to a spreadsheet that creates a chart for every set of blades. Call it a family born of a common fixture. “We keep this information forever,” said Martin, “If a customer needs a new blade or two, we look at that chart [for the family of blades delivered with his helicopter] and send replacements with matching numbers. Usually, they track very well. But if they don’t the customer sends them back and we send another one.”

Enstrom-78Rotor blades are not the only components Enstrom builds from scratch. It’s easier to itemize the components it does not build: engines, avionics, and instruments. “We don’t have a foundry to cast parts like the main transmission housing and tail rotor gear boxes,” said Martin, “but we have four CNC vertical machines and three turning centers, so we do the final machining. We also have a CNC router for cutting metal, and CNC press brakes for bending it.” Because it is a critical component, Enstrom has two firms that precision grind the hollow main rotor masts to 5/10,000th of an inch. One is in Traverse City, Michigan, and the other (which made parts for the space shuttle) is in Green Way, Wisconsin. Without doing the math, Martin estimated that 99 percent of the Enstrom is made in America, and most of the handful of foreign vendors is Canadian.

One of them extrudes the rotor blade D spar. “Spar thickness is critical to the blades’ performance, and we can tell when the company’s die starts wearing out because the blades fly differently on the helicopter,” said Martin. “So call them up and say that it’s time to refresh the die.” —Scott Spangler, Editor

Al Bean: An Astronaut of Many Colors

By Robert Mark on June 15th, 2018 | What do you think? »

Click here to listen

By Micah Engber

Al Bean. I just liked saying the name when I was a kid. It was a cool name, sounded like he would be a cool guy, what a neat name for an astronaut, for the fourth person to ever set foot on the moon. If it weren’t for that cool name, at least pretty cool to a 13 year old boy, I might not know much about Al Bean. Unlike some other astronaut names I know, that are in the forefront of my brain, Captain Bean didn’t fly a lot of missions, but he sure did save the day on one of them.

Turns out Al Bean was a pretty cool guy, and one of my childhood heroes; it also turns out, that I guess I’m at the age where I’m starting to lose a lot of them. Now the last survivor of Apollo 12 is gone.

Born in 1932 Alan Bean was a Texas boy and a University of Texas graduate with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. He was part of Navy ROTC at UT and after graduating, being commissioned, and getting through flight school, he flew the F9F Cougar and A4D Skyhawk. Eventually he was assigned to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, where Pete Conrad was his instructor.

Al Bean applied for Astronaut Group Two, and was rejected. That didn’t discourage him though he applied and was accepted to Astronaut Group Three along with Buzz Aldrin, Gene Cernan, Mike Collins and ten other names you may know. He was assigned as backup command pilot for Gemini 10 but never did fly Gemini; in fact he never got assigned an Apollo mission either. He ended up in the Apollo Applications Program where he worked on the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator and was the first astronaut in the tank to try it.

He had resigned himself to not fly Apollo when some luck struck him, both good and bad. You see fellow Astronaut Group Three alum and Apollo 12 Lunar Module Pilot Clifton Williams was lost in the crash of his T-38. Pete Conrad, Apollo 12 Commander remembered training Al Bean at Patuxent River and personally requested that he become Clifton Williams’ replacement. See what I mean, good and bad luck at the same time.

Al Bean was the right man for the job; in fact he saved the day. You see, Apollo 12 was struck by lightning on launch, and it knocked out the telemetry, as you can imagine quite a problem for a rocket on its way to the moon. In trying to restore telemetry the command came from ground, “… try SCE to ‘Aux”, an obscure switch that seemed to stump both Commander Pete Conrad and Command Module Pilot Richard Gordon. But Al Bean knew it! With Pete Conrad’s hand firmly grasping the abort handle Al Bean saved the mission.

Pete Conrad and Al Bean landed Lunar Module Intrepid on the lunar surface and did two EVA’s. Turns out, mixed in with all the hard work, there was also quite a bit of fun on the moon. One of the mission objectives was to collect some material from the Surveyor program, an unmanned two year NASA mission that demonstrated the feasibility of soft landings on the moon pre-Apollo. Al Bean had smuggled a camera timer on board Apollo 12 so he could take a photo of himself and mission Commander Pete Conrad in front of the Surveyor. Something that was done as a practical joke for NASA scientists as they knew nothing about the timer. But when the time came to take the picture, he couldn’t find the timer, and the photo was never taken. When he did find the timer, just before boarding the Lunar Module for departure, he just tossed it away over his shoulder.

The timer isn’t the only thing Al Bean tossed away on the moon. He’d worn a silver astronaut pin for six years. As an astronaut that completed training but had not yet flown a mission he was not entitled to a gold pin. Knowing he would be awarded his gold astronaut pin upon his return to earth Al Bean tossed his silver one into a lunar crater.

There were a few other little ditties that I could retell. Some Playboy Bunny photos attached to the lunar check list for example, but this is a family show.

Al bean didn’t have another space mission until 1973 in Skylab 3, the second manned mission to Skylab. During that time he spent 59 days in orbit, performed a spacewalk, and even tested a prototype of the Manned Maneuvering Unit. It’s said that his Skylab crew accomplished 150 percent of its pre-mission goals.

Although appointed backup spacecraft commander for the US crew of the Apollo-Soyuz Project, he never flew in space again after Skylab. As a Captain he retired from the Navy in 1975 but stayed on with NASA for quite some time afterwards as a civilian, in Astronaut Candidate Operations where he had the unofficial title of Chief Astronaut.

I always felt that Al Bean had a heart. Like I said, I could hear it in his name; I thought he was a cool guy. Turned out I was right.  He was in line to fly some of the first space shuttle missions but chose not to when he retired from NASA in 1981. In an unselfish gesture he decided there were so many younger astronauts that could do that job that he gave up his opportunity to go back into space to give them a chance.

For relaxation and his own personal growth Al Bean took art classes. When he retired from NASA he focused on painting, and his paintings are beautiful. He painted moonscapes, some of him and Pete Conrad on the moon, paintings of the photos he wanted to take, but couldn’t due to the lost timer. He incorporated real moon dust in his paintings and used some of the tools he brought back from the moon to paint them with. When asked about those paintings he once said that if he were painting as a scientist he would have painted in grays but as an artist he could “… add colors to the Moon.” He sure did.

For Jetwhine, here in Portland, Maine,

This is your Main(e) man,


Pilot Pride and Keeping Current with the Airman Certification Standards

By Scott Spangler on June 11th, 2018 | What do you think? »

Photo courtesy David Massey – Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

Pilot pride comes with the certificates and ratings achieved through successful checkrides. But like flying itself, maintaining one’s pilot pride properly is a never-ending effort. Human nature is an ever-present foe. Complacency replaces striving to be better on every flight, and boastful delusions take the place of yesterday’s abilities. Proper pilot pride abhors such delusions, and the Airman Certification Standards can help.

For those who were not paying attention, the FAA started replacing the Practical Test Standards (PTS) with Airman Certification Standards (ACS) in June 2016. Perhaps you were aware of this because of the kerfuffle over the FAA’s modification of the Slow Flight/Stall tasks.

The ACS enhances the PTS with task-specific knowledge and risk management ingredients, with the goal of getting a pilot’s head and hands on the same page. In FAA-speak, the ACS articulates what applicants and their teachers must KNOW, CONSIDER, and DO to pass a checkride for a given certificate or rating.

The FAA updated the airplane private pilot and instrument ratings, and introduced the airplane commercial pilot ACS, in June 2017. And it is again updating the ACS, which become effective June 11, 2018.

If a pilot certificate has been your back-pocket passenger for a decade or more, you may be wondering why you should care about this. On any given day, the ability to meet the certification standards for each certificate and rating proclaimed on that little piece of plastic is—and should be—the foundation for any pilot’s pride in being a competent aviator.

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Favorite Flights I Never Flew

By Robert Mark on May 27th, 2018 | Comments Off on Favorite Flights I Never Flew

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Favorite Flights I Never Flew, by Micah Engber, contributor

The mid to late 1980’s were the heyday of Frequent Flyer Programs. Since deregulation, the advent of low-cost airlines a-la People Express and Southwest, the mainline carriers were searching for a means to maintain their customer base, or as some said, their “strangle hold” on the industry. Frequent Flyer Programs started with American Airlines and quickly spread to all the others. By coincidence, this was also the time when, while living in Pueblo, Colorado, I was doing a good deal of commercial flying.

Pueblo was only served by Rocky Mountain Airlines (Continental Express) when I started flying from there and that was fine by me. There were three or four daily flights back and forth to the Denver, Stapleton hub, and I always loved climbing on board the de Havilland Dash-7’s or Dash-6 Twin Otters.  (Later America West made a daily stop on a 737 flight from Phoenix to Colorado Springs and back. It always seemed like it would have been strange to fly the less than 50 mile leg PUB to COS but I never had the opportunity.)

I joined the Continental One Pass Program early on and was soon an Elite Platinum member. What a wonderful way to fly! In those days most flights were way below capacity which meant I was almost always bumped up to First Class. Although First Class amenities weren’t even near what Business Class is today, it was still pretty spectacular compared to coach. All of the gate agents in Pueblo and some in Denver knew me by name and I was treated like a king.

Many people remember the baggage disaster that took place when the new Denver airport opened, but really it wasn’t very different from the old days back at Stapleton. The Continental Express concourse was located at the other end of the airport from Continental’s mainline terminal and although it seemed my bags always made it outbound with me, they generally never accompanied me home. But the service was still spectacular.

When I would arrive home in Pueblo the gate agent, having already seen my name on the flight manifest and recognizing me as a very frequent flyer, would pull me aside, tell me my bags didn’t make and that they would be delivered right after the next flight was turned around. Who could ask for more?

I kept flying and kept my points banked. At that time, status with Frequent Flyer programs was based on points accumulated, not annual miles flown. I was in great shape as a Platinum One Pass member.

By 1990 I could see that Frequent Flyer programs were changing along with the airline business. People Express had disappeared as had the original Frontier. Eastern Airlines and Pan Am were in trouble. TWA and America West were not far behind. Frequent Flyer programs were changing, and not for the better.

I had moved to Maine and also found that while wealthy with points I was not very liquid in cash. If points were stocks it was time to sell. So I did, both literally and figuratively.

After reserving a few points for something in particular I had in mind; I sold off the remaining points for cash through some specialty travel agents. I must say I did very well. Then I went ahead and used the reserved points for a special flight.

My parents had been talking about another trip to Paris for some time. They had been there together before, and my father had been there on his own many times during World War II. He even studied at The University of Paris post war.

Their 35th wedding anniversary was coming up and it was time to get them back to Paris. Still being within the golden years of Frequent Flyer programs, as a special anniversary present I was able to use my points to get them to Paris, round-trip in First Class. It was not a flight for me to fly, but nonetheless a memorable one that was worth every last point used for it. Read the rest of this entry »

AirVenture 40 and Rooting in Memory’s Bin

By Scott Spangler on May 21st, 2018 | 1 Comment »

AV Sticker-3For many in aviation, attending EAA AirVenture Oshkosh is an annual touchstone and we recall our participation in many ways. Mine is a memory bin, the yellow office trash can I got from Crate & Barrel when the U.S. Navy finished with me in February 1978. It displays the Champion stickers that mark my pilgrimage in anal-retentive columns six stickers. I’m on my seventh column now, and as I have for decades, I’ll pocket my 40th Champion sticker on the first day, this year on July 23, as a token of good things to come.

Each one is a multicolored oval that highlights the year. The colors are never the same, but all of them appear to be on a ribbon  headed by EAA, with the Champion bowtie logo providing the ribbon’s tails. Individually, they are visual mnemonics that recall each year’s pilgrimage. As it is for anyone’s first time, my inaugural participation in 1978 overwhelmed me. The dominant memories are my o-dark-thirty departure and a three-hour drive for a gate-opening arrival, wandering freely along the flight line that was open only to EAA members and pilots, and setting up camp Saturday night in Schiefelbein’s cow pasture.

Other stickers recollect the weather. There was the triple-digit heat in the early 1980s, and more than a few years when I sought shelter from a deluge in a Porta-Potty. A decade later the unforecast cold weather justified the purchase of an insulated flight jacket to my first wife. And almost every year recollected a daily battle with dehydration. I won’t bore you with all the people and planes buzzing now between my ears.

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Signs of Life at Indiana’s Noblesville Airport

By Scott Spangler on May 7th, 2018 | Comments Off on Signs of Life at Indiana’s Noblesville Airport

Noblesville-28Drawn to small airports that will not chase me away from the runway’s sideline where I capture the ground-t0-air photos of the homebuilt airplane builders I profile, each is a still-life statement on the vitality of general aviation.  All too often it is unequivocally dire, with signs offering airport hangars for rent as storage units for stuff people no longer use, not airplanes.

But not at Noblesville, Indiana, Airport (I-80), about 4 miles southeast of its eponymous hometown about 20 miles northeast of Indianapolis, which in 2016 estimated its population at 60,183. Driving between the cast concrete bald eagles that flanked its entrance was a portal to a vital small-town airport that Richard Bach could have written about in his biplane barnstorming days.

A line of lights outlined the east-west runway on the well manicured spring greensward. To the south, new small and medium enclosed hangars flanked a tidy line of open T-hangars. From each poked the nose of an winged puppy patiently awaiting its master’s return. Ahead, an unfrayed American flag before a small white frame building spoke of a middling northeast breeze, which the more distant windsock confirmed.

Noblesville-8The structure was clearly older and well cared for. The sign said it was the home of of EAA Chapter 67, and that it would hold its 2018 Pancake Fly-ins on June 9 and August 18. As expected on this Thursday afternoon in late April, the door was locked. AirNav.com said the privately owned public-use airport was unattended. Peeking past the plethora of aviation stickers that adorned the door’s window, the interior seemed clean and tidy and decorated in a style traditionally small airport eclectic.

To the left of the door, signs reminded pilots to “ALWAYS! Stop Engine When Loading and Unloading Passengers” and that those passengers should “NEVER! Turn Your Back on a Spinning Propeller.” Finally, “All Children MUST be Supervised at all Times!” Benches and picnic tables and a porch swing by a large shrouded propane grill standing guard over a squad of cylinders ready for coming cookouts suggested that Noblesville was well attended on weekends.

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GOES Gives HD Weather With Little Latency

By Scott Spangler on April 23rd, 2018 | Comments Off on GOES Gives HD Weather With Little Latency

20181071530_GOES16-ABI-FD-GEOCOLOR-678x678Mother Nature’s springtime blizzard that dumped more than a foot of snow over an appetizer of freezing rain and ice encouraged me to spend the weekend indoors. Searching for some clue of how many more courses this banquet of wind and snow she would serve led me to the discovery of NOAA’s newest generation of weather satellites, GOES-R.

GOES is short for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite. When launched, the satellites are identified by letter, and GOES-R is not GOES-16, aka GOES East, because that is its geostationary perspective of the Western Hemisphere. GOES-S, the second of the four-satellite system that will provide a weather eye through 2036, reached its geostationary home at 22,300 miles above ground level in March 2018. GOES-17, aka GOES-West, is now undergoing testing and calibration, it will begin supplying imagery in May.

Compared to its predecessors, the new GOES collect three time more data, provide four times better resolution, and more than five times faster coverage (about every 30 seconds). Onboard is the first-ever geostationary lightning mapper; the GLM detects the flashes at the tops of clouds day and night and counts frequency, location, extent, and the total number of in-cloud and cloud-to-ground strikes, all critical cues to severe weather.

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New Non-Tower AC: Perfect Spring Tune-up

By Scott Spangler on April 9th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

imageAh, springtime. Any day now it should finally stop snowing. As the snow melts, puddles, and sublimates from airport operation areas, airplanes will emerge from their T-hangar hibernations and start sniffing the sky on sunny weekends. In preparation for these first flights of 2018, on March 13, 2018, the FAA conveniently published the perfect spring tune-up for pilots, Advisory Circular 90-66B. Non-Towered Flight Operations.

This should be required reading for all pilots. According the the March 2018 Administrator’s Fact Book, the United States has 5,116 public-use airports. Only 521 of them have control towers. That makes all the rest non-towered. And non-towered is what the 254 airports with contract control towers become when their controllers call it an operational day. Add to this number the 14,168 private airports, and the reason pilots should refresh their data banks on non-tower ops should be clear.

The new AC does an excellent job of it, and the authors deserved high praise for their concise and clear prose. It starts with the title. What would be more clear and concise than Non-Towered Flight Operations? Or consider that the new AC replaces these two: AC 90-66A, Recommended Standard Traffic Patterns and Practices for Aeronautical Operating Control Towers, dated August 26, 1993; and AC 90-24F, Traffic Advisory Practices at Airports Without Operating Control Towers, dated May 21, 1990.

imageIf I may be blunt, regardless of what you fly—jet, engine, bug smasher, glider, anything lighter-than-air, or yourself after leaving some winged confines—read this AC because it covers the operational and communication aspects of all of them at non-towered airports. If you’re feeling all smug about your aeronautical knowledge, draw me a picture of the recommended traffic pattern that safely combines any two aviation activities at a non-towered airport.

Then answer me this: Does the non-towered airport you call home (or visit often) combine two or more aviation activities? The two most common combinations are fixed-wing flyers with either gliders or sky divers. And often ultralights are part of the fixed-wing flyers. What’s their pattern look like? If you don’t know or are unsure, click the link at the head of this story. It’s not a long read, just 18 pages with the appendixes. Do it now, in the privacy of your own screen. I’ll never tell. –Scott Spangler, Editor

The Surprising Death of DUATS

By Scott Spangler on March 26th, 2018 | Comments Off on The Surprising Death of DUATS

Image result for duatsReading that the FAA will end its contract for the Direct User Access Terminal Service (DUATS) on May 16, 2018, caught me by surprise. The surprise was not that the FAA was not renewing its support of the service. The surprise was that it had already done so around the turn of the century. Clearly, I need learn to pay closer attention to such things.

DUATS was born in 1989, about the time Flight Training magazine arrived in the world, back when computers were the new and exciting frontier that ended landline calls to 1-800-WxBrief and waiting on hold for a briefer. There were two different contractors competing for the attention of pilots, and their advertising revenue was certainly welcomed by the new publication.

More exciting was the no-wait weather briefing and other services DUATS provided—at no charge! And with time, each iteration of the provider’s proprietary software that automatically downloaded the selected weather products expanded the menu of meteorological goodies on offer. To this day, when I hear the nostalgic sound of a dial-up modem making its connection, I think not of “You’ve got mail!” but “You’ve got flying weather!”

Image result for flight service 1800 wx briefBut as broadband and Wi-Fi supplanted dial up, Internet weather sources were easier to access, and there were so many to choose from! As my attention was diverted (distracted?) elsewhere, as often happens, what you don’t regularly see ceases to exist. And isn’t the same thing happening to websites that haven’t kept up and redesigned their sites to automatically format themselves to the device that displays them?

What is more heartwarming is that it seems what goes around comes around. Without digging too deeply in to a service comparison, it seems that the flight service (smart phone compatible) website—www.1800WxBrief.com—provides most, if not all of a pilot’s flight planning needs, and for free! Ultimately, technological progress seems to be a merry go round, but getting a good preflight briefing has never lost its important contribution to aviation safety. –Scott Spangler, Editor

Pilot Past Tense

By Scott Spangler on March 12th, 2018 | 2 Comments »

logbookAsking newly met people their occupations is a phatic conversation starter that leads me down the semantic rabbit hole. Upon learning that I’m a word merchant, they ask what I write about. After hearing “aviation,” they ask if I’m a pilot, which is usually followed by “What do you fly?”

And so it starts.

Yes, I earned my private pilot certificate in 1976 and my instrument rating and commercial certificate in the 1990s. Because those certificates will never expire, I proudly acknowledge to the title of pilot, as a noun: “a person qualified to operate the control of an aircraft or spacecraft” (I wish!).

But “pilot” is also a transitive verb: “to act as a pilot of, on, in, or over” some craft. To pilot an aircraft in the present tense requires a valid medical certification (in a form applicable to the certificates and ratings held), a current flight review, and the documentation of compliance with the applicable currency requirements.

In this regard, I’m a pilot in the past tense. As far as I know right now, I possess no intellectual or physical disqualification that would prevent me from becoming a pilot in the future tense. And there are times, especially on nice spring and summer days, when I consider investing in piloting in the present tense. And then I get another notice that seems to be counting down the months until I must enroll in Medicare.

biplane-generic-4But what is life but a series of difficult decisions? One day every pilot will realize he or she has reached the point of no return and will have to make a decision that will define the narrative that is the remainder of their lives. And like writing a story, there is no one right or wrong way, but each path is lined with consequences directly related to it. Only time will tell if there’s another logbook entry along the path I’ve chosen.

A tangent on this debate of pilot tenses is one of aeronautical identity: is a pilot in the past tense still a pilot noun? Depending on my mood, I’ve taken both sides. I recommend that you not conduct this mental effort while tensely stretched out in the dentist’s recliner. It never ends well.

If you’re facing a similar cognitive conversation and you’re just not in the mood to deal with our pilot tense at the moment, may I recommend distraction. This always works for me: If a pilot in the present tense is airborne and the sole manipulator of the controls when time springs forward or falls back, how does he or she log it? – Scott Spangler, Editor