Where Does General Aviation Go From Here?

By Scott Spangler on September 21st, 2020 | What do you think? »

Nothing in the world seems to make sense anymore.

On Monday (September 14), GAMA published its aircraft shipping and billings report for the second quarter, and it’s not good. Every category took a significant hit. The surprise was that piston airplanes got off easy with just a 13.3% decrease from the same period in 2019. Piston helos, on the other hand, took the biggest hit, down 45.2%. Between the two were business jets, down 26.7%; turboprops, down 34.2%; and turbine helos, down 37.1%.

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SM Spangler

When looking at a bigger picture, framed by my second-floor office window in my hometown of roughly 3,500 people, things are more confusing because this week crews started building three new houses. Midweek, the TV news reported that home remodeling companies were never busier. How is this possible when the virus unemployed millions, with thousands more to join them next month when the bailout restrictions expire, and most people who still have jobs live paycheck to paycheck?

Certainly, the news on September 16 that the Federal Reserve expects to leave interest rates near zero through 2023 has something to do with this. And what does it all mean for the future of general aviation? Will people invest in new airplanes as they are investing in new houses? And what about used airplanes? What has the virus done to that market? If it is following the nonsensical real estate environment, used airplanes like prelived-in homes do not seem to be on the market very long. But clearly, by comparing the GAMA report with what I see out my office window, the two are not alike.

Maybe general aviation will recoup some of the transportation business the virus took from the airlines, at least for those with jobs and the ability to afford an airplane, a fractional ownership of one, or at least a charter flight. Then again, one needs a place to go, and the approval to get off the plane upon arrival, as dictated by any applicable entry and quarantine requirements.

Time will tell, of course, and we are sure to get a clue of what the future of general aviation might hold at the end of September, when we see consequences of the third quarter of this unpredictable year.

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SM Spangler

On the positive side, on my hike around town yesterday, a daily excursion to get some exercise and fresh air, I saw more general aviation airplanes buzzing above me than I’d ever seen on a Friday afternoon (except during AirVenture). But this, too, may have been because of timing. It was a beautiful sunny, cloud-free day in the 70s. Being this is Wisconsin, last night’s hard freeze warning was winter knocking at the door, so those lucky pilots may have been logging their last flights of the season.

Either way, no matter what is going on, there is nothing more beautiful, more soul lifting than seeing a sunshine yellow airplane humming its way across a spotless blue sky.– Scott Spangler, Editor

Paper, Airplanes, and Automated Aviation

By Scott Spangler on September 7th, 2020 | 6 Comments »

Rarely are the dots so closely connected to an epiphany that turns a train of thought on the future of automated aviation in the opposite direction.

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SkyDrive

The first dot was an August 29 New York Times story, Humans Take a Step Closer to ‘Flying Cars’, which discussed the first flight of the SkyDrive, a single-seat quadcopter. Its batteries enabled a flight of just a few minutes at an altitude of 3 meters. The article said that it was a long way from the necessary useful load and endurance necessary to make such a flying car practical, not to mention the necessary automated aviation and air traffic control tech and operator training that would make flying car operation safe for the masses. Being a perpetual skeptic, I doubted that the flying car dreamers would every achieve this.

The next dot was another New York Times story, August 31’s Drone Delivery? Amazon Moves Closer With FAA Approval. Amazon’s earning a Part-135 air carrier certificate for its fleet of Prime Air drones took the next step toward realizing the dream of a workable flying car and its cousin, urban air mobility. In submitting the evidence of the safety management systems and other information needed to earn a Part 135 certificate, and to demonstrate those operations to the FAA, earning the certificate was an “important step” in developing its automated aviation delivery technology.

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Amazon Prime Air

Company officials offered pragmatic conclusions on the future. The article quoted Prime Air Vice President David Carbon: Earning the Part 135 certificate “indicates the FAA’s confidence in Amazon’s operating and safety procedures for autonomous drone delivery service that one day will deliver around the world. [Amazon will] continue to develop and refine our technology to fully integrate delivery drones in the airspace, and work closely with the FAA and other regulators around the world to realize our vision of 30-minute delivery.”

Finally, there was the story from Flying (and other sources), Xwing Flies Cessna Caravan Autonomously. This takes the Amazon drone delivery to the next level, and the tech involved seems related to Garmin’s Autoland system, which the FAA has approved for the Piper M600 and Cirrus Vision Jet. These accomplishments further eroded my skepticism of near-term arrival of pilotless commercial aviation.

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Xwing

The epiphany that brought my skepticism to a dead stop and turned it around was in the opening pages of Mark Kurlansky’s fascinating book, Paper: Paging Through History. What’s the connection? “Technology does not change society, society changes technology,” he wrote, explaining that, regardless of its form, technology is a practical application of knowledge. “There is a tendency to imagine that technology is a Pandora’s Box, that once a new way is initiated, it unavoidably falls into use and is unstoppable. But when a technology is invented that doesn’t correspond to the needs of a society, it falls into obsolescence.”

When it comes to commercial aviation, what is most important to the society of decision makers will become transparent on October 1. That’s when the federal airline bailout requirement to not fire or furlough employees expires. United Airlines has already queued up more than 16,000 employees, American Airlines also seems to be in this queue, as do other airlines.

As has been the case since the 1980s, what are most important to society are the bottom line and the benefits accruing to corporate shareholders and the executive to reap the bonuses and the for-hire politicians who support this now entrenched way of life. Employees who create and provide the goods and services, and the customers who consume them, are little more than economic fields to be harvested or sacrificed as the bottom line and dividends demand. To this end, automated aviation that does not need pilots cannot get here soon enough, and it will be here in good time. –Scott Spangler, Editor

Barnstorming Rio, Wisconsin

By Scott Spangler on August 24th, 2020 | 4 Comments »

Instead of Ghostly Nostalgia, a Living Connection to What Was

Rio-11Pandemic stir-craziness manifested itself on a glorious mid-August Sunday afternoon. From my second-floor window, I watched scattered cumulus clouds in a blue sunny sky dapple my small town Wisconsin neighborhood with slow moving shadows, spotting the landscape like the Holstein cows that define America’s Dairyland. Yeah. I need to get out of the house.

So I saddled up for Rio, Wisconsin, a village of 1,059 people (as counted in 2010). When Richard Bach circled it in 1966 and landed for food, fuel, and some pages in Nothing by Chance, A Gypsy Pilot’s Adventures in Modern America, the population was, he wrote, 776. (Rereading it was an antidote for a gloomy December day before Covid was a thing: See Giving Thanks: Bach in Nothing by Chance.) Having visited a number of small-town strips across the country over the past 15 years, even on a spectacular Sunday afternoon, perfect for some flightseeing, I didn’t expect anything but a ghost town.

Rio-4No one was flying when I arrived at Gilbert Field (94C), but several hangars were open, including this one, where I met these guys. That’s Bill Horton on the left, with the First Marine Division ball cap, a retired American Eagle pilot, who flies the Rio Flying Club’s Citabria, a Cub, and the Bonanza he operates with a partner. On the right is Steve Johnson, in his Oshkosh 2014 t-shirt and EAA ball cap. He grew up at this airport; “My dad was one of the founders of the airport in 1959.”

Bach wrote that Lauren Gilbert owned the airport, and Steve explained that the Rio Flying Club had always owned the strip; Lauren was the club’s president when Bach arrived in his Parks-Detroit biplane. Gilbert owned the glove company that was Rio’s primary employer (it’s now a gasket company), bought that biplane later, and they named the airport Gilbert Field, Bill said. “That didn’t go down without a fight, but when [Gilbert] died, some money was donated.”

Rio-18Asking about the silver water tower that caught Bach’s attention, with the village’s name emblazoned on it in black block letters, Bill said the trees on the east side of Highway 16 hid its replacement, a big white ball-headed push-pin. Pointing to the orange cones that marked the end of the turf runway’s official 1,092-foot FAA length, “There used to be a 6-foot drop off there,” Bill said. “When they were building the water treatment plant in the 1970s, they needed some place to dump the dirt, and [club president] George Williams went over and told them they could dump it here.” That leveled things out and gave the runway a 200-foot overrun on both ends.

Bach returned to Rio in 1970 to make the Nothing by Chance movie, Steve said, and this hangar here is where the Travel Air they bought used to live. Stuffed into it now were two of the half-dozen or so airplanes the A&P-IA owns, the Piper Tri-Pacer he soloed in and the Piper Vagabond he inherited from his father, now powered by a 100-horse Continental O-200. “Dad’s claim to fame is that he bought and sold 72 airplanes during his lifetime.”

Rio-22Steve’s dad was a watchmaker and jeweler who established his shop in Rio, and then moved to Portage, a city of 10,000 that’s 20 miles to the west-northwest. During the week, Steve works for the Wisconsin National Guard, maintaining the Army’s fleet of 11 C-26E Metroliners, which sport Rockwell Collins Proline 21 flight decks. Most of them are based in Madison, he said.

Walking up to the clubhouse for a cold drink, my hopes of seeing the wood burning Warm Morning stove Bach wrote about died when Bill said the building used to serve Rio’s telephone exchange. “They were going to tear it down; we moved it here instead.” Better than the stove was the poster for the fly-in that drew Bach back to Rio for its passenger-rich opportunity.

Rio-10Bach called it the Fireman’s Picnic, Steve said, but it has always been the flying club’s annual Sunday morning fly-in breakfast. Campgrounds surround Rio, Bill said, and the club often launches a three-ship formation of Cubs to fly around them and let the campers know we were serving Sunday morning breakfast. In years past, Bill said, the club fed upwards of 1,200 folks, and last year it was 800. Covid canceled this year’s fly-in feed.

We three being of the same era, Steve and Bill agreed that they had been fortunate to have grown up in Rio when they did. They discovered that they were both learning to fly when they showed up for their private pilot checkrides on the same day in 1977.

Steve, who was living in portage at the time, soloed in 1970, “but I procrastinated and thought I’d discovered girls.” Bill soloed in 1969, when he got out of high school, “my dad had a Cub and we flew the heck out of that.” He didn’t say so, but taking a hint from 1st MarDiv ball cap and several comments, an extended tour of Southeast Asia separated his solo from his private pilot checkride.

“When they say the world has changed, they weren’t kidding. We lived in a different time, and I don’t know if we will recover,” Steve said. “The older guys were buying, restoring, and flying airplanes,” Bill said. “We grew up around that and kind of took it for granted, but nobody’s doing that anymore.”

Rio-6Rio may well be one of the last American airstrips where this era of aviation still exists. The Rio Flying Club has 30-35 members, Bill said, pointing at hangars and counting maybe a dozen flying airplanes. The current president, Bruce, a retired American Airlines pilot, has a Stinson 108, is building a Fisher Flying Products Tiger Moth, and he just hauled a gullwing Stinson into his hangar, Steve said. “It was lend-lease to England in World War II, and it is a true basket case.”

In parting, the guys invited me to next year’s fly-in breakfast (watch the flying club’s Facebook page for details), but they could not answer my one burning question: Why does Rio pronounce its name RYE-oh? (Likewise the people of Berlin, who say they are from BURR-lin.) Steve shrugged his shoulders and Bill said maybe so people would not be confused with another Rio?

From the airport, I went downtown to see how it had changed from Bach’s Nothing by Chance, visit. But I’ve gone on long enough here. (If you’re interested in that perspective, see Biplane Point of View: Rio, Wisconsin.) – Scott Spangler

Staying Dry & Distant at the EAA Museum

By Scott Spangler on August 10th, 2020 | 12 Comments »

Covid OpeningWith thunderstorms lined in assaulting waves on radar and pathfinding drops splattering themselves against my office window, changing my Saturday morning plans for a two-wheel ride to Rio, Wisconsin, seemed prudent. Remembering that the EAA Aviation Museum had reopened on the previous Monday, a visit there would be interesting on several levels, especially since it has been several years since I last paced my way around its winged occupants.

Turning into the museum driveway, the blue signs saying the EAA grounds were closed to the public were gone. Orange cones funneled me to a forkliftabale light taupe AirVenture kiosk that sheltered a man with a mask. He asked if I’d been out of the state anytime in the past two weeks. Nope. Did I have any respiratory problems? Nope. Did I have a fever? Not that I know of. Drawing from some unseen holster, he held a temperature-sensing pistol to my head. It beeped. He asked one more question: Did I have a mask? Yup, it’s in my pocket.

Parking beyond a cluster of maybe a dozen or so cars, most of the license plates I passed were from Wisconsin, with a few from Michigan and one from Minnesota and another from Indiana. It seems the Illinoisans were taking their states quarantine requirements for anyone from or visiting Wisconsin seriously, or was that just for people living in Chicagoland?

Four signs led me to the front door. The first said masks are required for everyone 5 years and older. Next, museum attendance was limited to 150 people, and if it were full, you’d have to wait outside until someone left. EAA would prefer admission payment with a credit card, but it would still accept cash. (EAAers just need to show their membership card.) The final sign graphically dictated the distance and hand-sanitizing parameters of social distancing.

Covid OpeningAfter showing my membership card to the nice lady behind the Plexiglas screen, instead of saying hello to the cluster of docents that usually awaited visitors just steps into the museum proper there were just more signs. One reminded everyone to maintain 6 feet of distance. The other said the hands-on exhibits, the Johnson Wax S-38, Willan Space Gallery, KidVenture, the cockpit, Wright Flyer, and powered parachute simulators, were closed.

But the faint scent of airplane still permeated the calming museum half light, as it always has. Shrugging off my inability to remember when I’d last visited, I set off on my atavistic path forged when I needed to stretch my legs or clear my mind when my office was on the other side of the museum’s doors (and it was, like this day, raining). A new model of the Graf Zeppelin overlooked the Wright Flyer in its usual place below me, at the bottom of the stairs. Behind me, I could hear Steve Buss, a friend and former coworker, narrating the film playing in the Skyscape Theater.

Covid OpeningStickers on the balcony railing indicated the desired distance between those overlooking the airplanes below. The composition of Van’s Aircraft RVs was new. So was the prototype Christian Eagle on a vertical line in the aerobatic gallery below. Behind me, a tape barrier put all of the hands-on aerospace physics experiments in the Willan Space Gallery out of arm’s reach. Around the corner, a similar barrier blocked the automatic whooshing sliding doors that led to KidVenture. An Aviore mural has replaced the outer space theme artwork. Interesting.

Stopping on my way to the Eagle Hangar, the bathrooms were open but the bubblers (drinking fountains to out-of-staters), were swaddled in black garbage bags and green packing tape. Given its tertiary use as an event space, the arrangement on the hangar deck changes often, or it did until the pandemic rearranged life. The fixed displays, the prototype P-51 and the F4U-4 that dominated the Navy corner on the opposite wall, hadn’t moved. But the reassembled Spanish Bf-109 Messerschmitt now flew above the P-51 at balcony eye level.

Covid OpeningThe dewinged Messerschmitt used to reside on the opposite wall, in a canvas nook festooned with Top Secret signs, because it shared the space with a replica of the Fat Man, the plutonium bomb that fell on Nagasaki 75 years ago tomorrow, August 9. In its place was a Bell UH-1B Huey. Descending the stairs at the far end of the balcony, I made my way across the floor to investigate it.

On the final panel telling of the Huey’s history, I found a surprise, a photo I’d taken from the USS Blue Ridge, command ship for the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. It capture the moment an ARVN pilot stepped out of a Huey. It captured the pilot’s fifth and final such flight. With his family, he’d arrived the night before in a CH-47 Chinook, which he later ferried to the USS Midway. With room for just one helo on the flight deck, he’d volunteered to ditch the Hueys so the next one could land. When the helo’s he’d ditched at lower altitudes almost fell on him, he started stepping out of them at higher altitudes. After he’d injured his ankle in the pictured hundred-foot fall, the flight deck crew started pushing the empty helos over the side.

Covid OpeningWorking my way back to the corner, I paid homage to Ernie Gann at his Chicken Coop writer’s shack. Peeking out the back door and seeing it rain free, I followed the path to Pioneer Airport. It was unchanged, except I don’t remember the flat right main-gear tire on the Ryan SCW, in the eponymous hanger of its manufacturer.

Making my way down the line to the vacant Air Academy lodge and Compass Hill, I notice a stack of blocks that were building new panels at the EAA Memorial Wall. What many may not know is that part of this area, between the wall and the memorial chapel, is a registered cemetery (I was even on its board for a time during my EAA employment). It is a small plot, and I went looking for the headstone that, when I’d last looked at it, was engraved with the names and birthdates of Paul and Audrey Poberezny.

Covid OpeningPaul passed on August 22, 2013, and I wondered if EAA had added this date to the headstone, which bears the words, “To Fly” under the wings of a US Air Force Command Pilot. It took me a while to find it, but there it was up a few stairs on the sidewalk behind the chapel.

Maybe they moved it to accommodate the additional Memorial Wall panels; regardless, its inscriptions were unchanged. Maybe he’s waiting for his wife (and EAA’s mom), Audrey, who was born in 1925, four years Paul’s junior. I’d pass her assisted living facility on my way home. Looking skyward, the clouds suggested that I get a move on. –Scott Spangler, Editor

How I Spent My AirVenture Vacation

By Scott Spangler on July 27th, 2020 | 4 Comments »
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An excavator dismembers OSH’s terminal, making way for its replacement. SM Spangler

Like several hundred thousand others who normally spend the summer preparing for their annual pilgrimage to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, I’ve been anxiously trying to decide what will fill the time I normally spend tramping 10 miles in the AirVenture maze created by 10,000 airplanes.

Exacerbating the challenge is my lack of experience. This is my first AirVenture vacation since my inaugural pilgrimage to Oshkosh in 1978. Personally—and professionally—the event surpasses my birthday as the primary measure of the passage of time.

Covid’s cancellation of OSH20 has been like the traumatic amputation of a limb, but instead of phantom pain in the absent limb, I’ve been hearing things. With my office window, roughly 10 miles west of Wittman Regional Airport, for 51 weeks of the year it rarely frames the buzzing hum of a flying machine.

But this past week I’ve been hearing more airplanes than usual, and my Fitbit says all my trips down and up the stairs to rush outside to look for them would have taken me to the summit of Mount Everest. Only once did I see something that proved I was not hearing things. Early in the week, at maybe 2,000 feet above ground level, came two three-ship Vs of Piper Cherokees bound for OSH.

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Waupaca’s ramp is normally filled with Cherokees preparing for their OSH mass arrival. SM Spangler

Knowing that this group normally gathers at the Waupaca Municipal Airport, I spent Friday on the road, visiting it and the other airports in the area, from Fond du Lac and Wautoma to Wild Rose and Brennand. Except for someone in a Cessna 150 flying circuits-and-bumps at Wautoma, watched by an unattended Aeronca Chief sunning its uncowled cylinders in front of an open hangar, all were quiet.

A surprise awaited me at Wittman. An excavator was slowly masticating the terminal and spitting the unrecyclable bits into big bins. If Mother Nature allows OSH21 to take place, a new 6,254-square-foot terminal will greet FBO-bound pilgrims. Riding the rest of the way around the airport, the gates were closed at every portal to the convention ground, each with the big blue sign saying EAA was closed.

Oddly enough, there were humans guarding the gates down by Convention HQ and the roads leading to EAA’s galactic headquarters, whose employee parking lot was again full of cars. Perhaps the staff is back and preparing for the August 3 public reopening of the EAA Aviation Museum.

Reflect, Ruminate, Reconcile

AV20-NOsh-3Facing my first AirVenture vacation, I ultimately decided to simulate my inaugural pilgrimage in 1978, by camping out after a long walk and considering my future. Instead of wandering the flight line, admittance to which then required a pilot’s certificate or EAA membership card, I cut my grass. (It’s a big lot; Fitbit says I push the mower 10 miles, my average daily AirVenture hike.) And instead of pitching my tent in Schiefelbein’s cow pasture, I pitched on my just mowed grass.

Having lived the consequences of decisions made in 1978, and with more years behind me than ahead, pondering the future was no easier because life’s unforeseen, uncontrollable variables, such as viruses and Parkinson’s, are what make such rumination interesting. Thankfully, technology has come a long way since 1978, and a laptop is more efficient, not to mention, legible, than scribbled notes of which path to pursue.

At 24, a civilian again for just a few months after spending a quarter of my life in the US Navy (and half of that aboard ship, which in comparison makes the Covid confinement seem like a vacation), my choosing between building an airplane and aviation career or going to college was my primary decision.

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Wild Rose was devoid of grass loving airplanes and their pilot. SM Spangler

After talking with a spectrum of builders and aviation professionals, I decided to attend the University of Missouri School of Journalism, because there is more to life than airplanes. All of the builders and professional aviators I talked to, including EAA founder Paul Poberezny, shared a common trait. They were 100-percent into aviation, and that single-minded focus fueled their success.

I’m not a 100-percent person, never have been, never will be. The full spectrum of aviation has always been an important part of my life, but not to the exclusion of anything else that piques my curiosity. J-School reinforced my collegiate course because only 10 percent of my classes would focus on journalism. I would create my own course of study by enrolling in any of the university’s courses that interested me. This foundation of learning made me an autodidactic polymath.

Since my inaugural pilgrimage, I have enjoyed four Oshkosh transitions. Until 1989, I was a weekend participant, spending one day on the road, one day walking the flight line and filling a forum seat or workshop bench to learning something new, and another day on the road back to school or work. I was on the road in 1989, too, but I was hauling 5,000 Flight Training magazines and a booth, where I’d spend the week handing them out and meeting readers in the corrugated convection building that was the south exhibit building.

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At Wautoma, an Aeronca Chief basked cowless in the sunshine. SM Spangler

My perspective changed again in 1999 when Flight Training moved to is new home in the east, and I was the contracted creator and editor of NAFI Mentor. At the time, NAFI was an EAA affiliate, and it gave me a peek inside the tent. A month after AirVenture I crossed the threshold when I filled the empty chair of Sport Aviation editor in chief Jack Cox. Oshkosh becomes a completely new event when you’re immersed in its preparations. It was both rewarding and frustrating, but like life itself, nothing lasts forever.

My last AirVenture transition has been the longest-lived. For 14 years (and counting), I proudly work the AirVenture media credentials for JetWhine. It has been an unsurpassed joy because its publisher, Rob Mark, encourages unbounded explorations of aviation curiosity equal to my unfettered wanderings during my first decade of Oshkosh participation. From my backyard campsite, this era surpasses the first because the road trip is shorter and I get to sleep in my own bed every night.

What’s next is unknown, unpredictable with any degree of confidence. Uncertainty is the future’s key characteristic. Depending on how Mother Nature behaves over the coming year, OSH19 might well have been my last. We can hope for OSH21, but we won’t know for sure until we walk under the brown arch next year.

And I’m okay with that because I learned in 1972 that life offers no guarantees. Each morning you awake might be your last because an A-7 dives into your apartment building one night at Mach 1, or the gunner behind the red tracers floating lazily toward your helo might find their mark, or a virus might sneak up on you. With no guarantees, what matters most is making the most of your abilities every morning you are able to get out of bed.

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Like the other small airports in the area, during what would have been the week of AirVenture, Brennand was bereft of airplanes. SM Spangler

Whining about things you cannot control is time wasted that could be better invested in something you can control, something more rewarding in the moment, like mowing the grass and camping out in the backyard. – Scott Spangler, Editor

Nouns of Knowledge

By Scott Spangler on July 13th, 2020 | 3 Comments »

Semantically, Students and Learners Are Not Synonymous

aihThe AOPA online headline about the 2020 update of the Aviation Instructor’s Handbook immediately captured my attention because – What’s Behind the FAA’s Switch from Student to Learner? – signaled an inversion of educational intent.

Looking for an answer, the author, Dan Namowitz, asked Chris Cooper, AOPA’s director of regulatory affairs who’s on the FAA work group that focuses on training and testing initiatives.

The FAA changed its nouns to address a socially self-inflicted problem that contributes to diminished learning—status. “The change from student to learner started several years ago in an industry working group,” Cooper said. “Industry wanted to get away from using the word ‘student’ because traditionally we think of student as in ‘student pilot’ or a beginning student pilot/mechanic.”

After two years of debate, which included options that included “pilot-in-training,” the FAA went with a term some school systems and institutions of higher learning use for their enrollees—“learner”—an academic buzzword that implies “the concept of lifelong learning.” In addition, Cooper said the new nouns would appear in other handbooks as the FAA updates them.

Becoming knowledgeable and proficient in any aviation arena is a daunting enough challenge without complicating it with a new lexicon that replaces long established words that communicates their meaning clearly, concisely, and simply.

In the Fifth Edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the transitive form, to “learn” is “to get knowledge of (a subject) or skill in (an art, trade, etc.) by study, experience, instruction, etc.” In other words, it is the action employed by the noun, student, who is “a person who studies, or investigates” something.

The implied status of the word student is a consequence of individual semantics. To me, student is a badge of honor that one must earn by every day effort. It defines those who are so curious about a given topic that they will pursue every scrap of information, no matter how tangentially related. Like ingredients of knowledge, they all go into their cranial pantry, ready to use in a recipe for a new idea. A teacher takes the next step. The best teachers are students who share what they have learned with those who share a similar curiosity.

But that is not how education has worked in America for the past 30 odd years, when test results became more important than one generation imparting its acquired knowledge to the next generation. This testing transformation turned classroom teachers into presenters who had 180 days to prepare their charges to take the test that would satisfy the demands of their overseeing bureaucrats and elected officials.

This leaves no time to present anything more than the information needed to take the test. If a member of the class has a question related to the subject being presented, there’s no time for a curiosity-satisfying educational tangent (unless you were, like me, a substitute teacher). The goal for those enrolled is consume and regurgitate a prescribed compendium of skills and facts to pass the tests associated with that list. Aviation is no different.

learnerAnother consequence this fire hose education philosophy of rote learning of the facts, figures, and skills needed to pass a test is that “learners” are conditioned to automatically accept and believe what those in a position of authority tell them. As with educational tangents, there is no time for critical thinking and the questions its generates. [This may be one reason politicians pursue testing as a primary measurement, because people are easier to lead (and deceive) when they only believe what someone they hold as trustworthy tells them something.]

Oddly, it surprised me that Chapter 2: Human Behavior of the 2020 instructor’s handbook accurately described today’s “adult learners,” who are products of the American education system as goal-oriented 30-somethings with short attention spans and the desire for immediate gratification.

The FAA didn’t use those words, but the handbook described learners primarily interested in the skills, facts, and figures they need to pass a test than acquiring knowledge, and understanding how to use it. The first two paragraphs of Chapter 3: The Learning Process describes the hypothetical first flight of a learner who focuses on performing the demonstrated skill step-by-step. Later in training, if the instructor asks this learner “a question or to perform two tasks as once,” the learner loses their place and must restart from the beginning.

Under the subhead The Check Ride, the next two paragraphs say this learner has become “a different person.” The learner “does not simply reiterate facts—she applies her knowledge to solve the problems” the instructor presents. This foreshadows the forthcoming discussion that includes the basic levels of learning – Rote, Understanding, Application, and Correlation – 15 pages later.

learning levelsWhat this educational theory presentation does address is whether the curriculum prescribes “problems” at certain points of training (Lesson four, engine failure), or whether the instructor has the ability to recognize a potential problem (say, flying a very wide traffic pattern) and the instructional freedom to safely create a learning experience that addresses it (like an engine failure)?

This situation is not new; rote learning has always been the Achilles heel of aviation education. The problem remains the same; only the words that define the participants have changed.

Regardless of the semantic terms, the Boeing 737 Max debacle is the perfect example of difference between students and learners. The consensus of what I’ve read about this sad situation says that learners accepted what the manufacturer and training center instructors told them about this airplane and its systems. To date, I haven’t heard of any student, driven by curiosity, to invest the time and effort to dig into the technical details before the loss of life brought it to everyone’s attention. And this is, perhaps, the prime example of why aviation needs more students than learners. –Scott Spangler, Editor

Book Review: Empires of the Sky

By Scott Spangler on June 29th, 2020 | 5 Comments »

A Concise Look at Human Flight with an Unexpected Focus

eosWith my knowledge bank bereft all but the most rudimentary information about Zeppelins (aka rigid airships), my curious eye immediately focused on the tail end of the Zeppelin under the title, Empires of the Sky. (Following the airship to the backside of the dust cover identified it as the Graf Zeppelin.) The subhead of Alexander Rose’s 600-page tome—Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men’s Epic Duel to Rule the World—lured me between the covers.

I assumed that German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the eponymous airship’s creator, might be one of them. Or maybe it was Hugo Eckener, who turned them into a reliable form of air transportation (at least until the Hindenburg arrived at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937). But who was the other? It was someone I would have never considered—Juan Trippe, of Pan American Airways.

This at first seemed an odd couple, but as I read, it was a genius paring because both men were pursuing the same goal, to provide reliable transatlantic air service. And it provided an important perspective, refocusing my grouping of things that fly and things that do not. Rose set the stages for his book by sharing Octave Chanute’s concise explanation of the two camps hoping to solve the problem of flight more than a century ago.

Writing Aerial Navigation in 1891, Chanute’s two competing schools were addressing the challenges of flight:

“1: AERONAUTS, who believe that success is to come through some sort of balloon, and that the apparatus must be lighter than the air which it displaces.

“2: AVIATORS, who point to the birds, believe that the apparatus must be heavier than air, and hope for success by purely mechanical means.

“Curiously enough, there seems to be very little concert of study between these two schools. Each believes the other so wrong as to have no chance of ultimate success.”

Rose starts with the aeronauts, because they flew first. In elegantly crafted prose, he brings aerostat novices up to speed on the contributing experimenters and the technological contributions. And then he reveals an elegant surprise. Ferdinand Zeppelin made his first flight in a tethered balloon in St. Paul, Minnesota, on August 19, 1863, with one Professor Steiner, late of the Union balloon corps. A military officer, Zeppelin witnessed balloon mail from Paris in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War.

ZeppelinLZ127a wikiFour years later, following a fall from his horse, he awoke from a “fevered dream” in which he saw the flimsy predecessor of what would become his eponymous Zeppelin, so named by his volunteer PR man, Hugo Eckener, who went on to take over the company following Zeppelin’s death. Rose evenly balanced the human aspects of the story with the technological side that ranged from the development of the rigid air ships and their duralumin metallurgy to their military service during World War I.

Empires of the Sky also takes an illuminating look at American airship efforts and their ties to Germany. And Rose devotes an equal measure of research to the camp of aviators. Here I found fewer rewarding surprises, but there were a good number of them. Most of them told the Pan Am story, how it developed its flying boats and established its Pacific and then Atlantic routes. While I can appreciate what Trippe and Pan Am achieved, I learned that how he achieved them would hold him in good stead in the cutthroat, backroom backstabbing corporate culture of the 21st century.

Whether you lean toward Team Aeronaut or Team Aviator, or you are interested in learning more about them and how they came to be, Empires of the Sky is a rewarding and worthwhile investment of your time. I do have one caveat, however, don’t start reading it after dinner when you have to be at work the next morning. –Scott Spangler, Editor

Inattentive Oshkosh Migrants Will Find No EAA Roosts at Wittman in July 2020

By Scott Spangler on June 15th, 2020 | 7 Comments »
AV20-6

SM Spangler

It is a statistical reality that regardless of the methods of dissemination, roughly 10 percent of the population will not get the word. Or they will forget they got the word and reflexively follow their atavistic inclinations. Some creatures, like the swallows who migrate to San Juan Capistrano every spring from their winter residences in Argentina, don’t have a choice because conscious decision making is probably not among their sentient capabilities. Pilots don’t have this excuse, and those who migrate to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh this July will find no roosts at Wittman Regional Airport.

In an attempt to catch the attention of pilots who were not paying attention, or might forget that EAA CANCELED AIRVENTURE 2020, Wittman Regional Airport posted this notice on its website and sent an email to everyone on its mailing list.

AIRPORT STATUS DUE TO CANCELLATION OF 2020 EAA AIRVENTURE

We’re all disappointed with the cancellation of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2020, as it means so many different things for everyone who attends. For thousands of aviators, flying to Wittman Regional Airport (KOSH) is a highlight in the logbook.

AV20-15

SM Spangler

As AirVenture 2020 is not taking place, Wittman Regional Airport will operate normally as a public use airport with contract tower services. For those considering flying to Oshkosh in late July, it’s important to manage expectations about what is permissible:

  • *Aircraft parking for itinerant traffic is available on the Terminal / Basler FBO Ramp. No permit has been obtained for aircraft parking or camping on any turf areas of the airfield and therefore is not permitted.
  • *No buildings or facilities on the AirVenture grounds will be open. Those attempting to camp will be asked to move to Terminal / Basler FBO ramp parking or depart.
  • *The Warbird / Homebuilt camping areas near P-1 taxiway will not be open. Papa 2 taxiway (Boeing Plaza) will not be accessible.
  • *There will be no access to EAA facilities from the airport. EAA did not obtain a Wisconsin temporary campground permit for Camp Scholler in 2020, so it is illegal to accept or allow campers there this year. The EAA Aviation Museum also will be closed to the public through July.

For those who still want to fly to Oshkosh during AirVenture week, we encourage you to park at the Terminal / Basler FBO ramp, stay at one of our local hotels, and enjoy some of Oshkosh’s hospitality. Please coordinate with Basler Flight Service to arrange any ground handling needs.

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SM Spangler

And if you’re thinking of flying in for a visit, following the operational items in the OSH message, make sure you add the Covid-19 status to your preflight planning. It seems that Oshkosh, for the past few days, has been leading the state in new cases, especially among 20 and 30 year olds. Who knows what it will look like in July?

And for the 10 percent who didn’t get the word, EAA is hosting a safer, more economical replacement for your annual Oshkosh migration with a virtual celebration, EAA Spirit of Aviation Week, July 21-25. I’ll be there, but on my trips into town during the week, I may swing by Wittman Field to see who didn’t get the word. –Scott Spangler, Editor

Crew Dragon Demo 2: A Short Course in 21st Century Spaceflight

By Scott Spangler on June 1st, 2020 | 8 Comments »
nasa d2 launch

NASA

As it did when Alan Shepard kicked off the US Space program with his suborbital flight in 1961, I eagerly anticipated watching the program’s most recent chapter, the resumption of flights launched from American soil. Watching the preparations for the Demo 2 departure of Crew Dragon on Wednesday and on Saturday was much more than I expected, a short course in 21st century spaceflight.

Used to the military-toned phraseology employed during all of the NASA launches I’ve watched since Shepard went flying in 1961, it was clear this was a commercial operation because everyone on the NASA TV Launch America referred to everyone involved by their first names. Watching the launch on Saturday with my sister and brother-in-law, we considered (briefly) starting a drinking game where we had to take a sip every time someone said “Bob and Doug,” referring to the Crew Dragon crew of Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Thankfully we didn’t. If we had, the four of us would have been sleeping it off under the TV long before Bob and Doug closed their helmet visors and armed the launch escape system so they could start filling the Falcon 9 with densified LOX and RP1.

nasa crew

NASA

Like the NASA flights that preceded it, acronyms and multi-letter abbreviations liberally seasoned the comments and conversations of launch communications. What I did not expect, based on this past experience, is that the Launch America crew would translate and explain—in English—what they were talking about, hence the much appreciated short course in 21st century space flight.

Chances are you were, like me, one of the more than 10 million online viewers, so I won’t bore you with a geek-worthy catalog of new learning. But as a sample, the super turbo pumps feed the Falcon 9’s nine Merlin engines a mixture of densified liquid oxygen, which is colder than traditional LOX to provide more oxidizer in the same volume, and Rocket Propellant 1, which is a rocket-grade kerosene. To “complete the fire triangle,” the Falcon 9 adds TEA-TEB—a mixture of triethylaluminum and triethylborarne—a pyrophoritic compound that spontaneously combusts when exposed to oxygen (gaseous or liquid or densified liquid).

nasa crew open

NASA

What they did not explain is why the crew kept their helmet visors open until arming the launch escape system. I remember from spaceflights previous when the crew had to prebreathe oxygen to purge their system of nitrogen before launch, to prevent any chance of bubbles of that gas in their bloodstreams should the spacecraft lose pressurization on its way to orbit. (Anyone have any ideas?) The boldly numbered members of the ground crew, on the other hand, seem an efficiently brilliant way to assigning and keeping track of their essential duties, responsibilities, and contribution to the flight.

If Launch America discussed the roots of the whimsical equipment names, I missed it, so I had to do some post flight research. SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk is a science fiction fan (like that was a surprise), so he named his reusable rocket after Hans Solo’s Millennium Falcon. Elon explained the capsule’s moniker in a Twitter response to a question about its name. The reusable capsule “was originally called Puff the Magic Dragon, as people said I was high if I thought it would work, so I named it after their insult.”

nasa merlin

NASA

Expecting the Falcon’s Merlin engines to be named after King Arthur’s wizard, I discovered it was named after the bird, as were SpaceX’s other engines, Kestrel and Raptor. The drone ships that are the landing pads for the Falcon’s first stage were a bit more esoteric. Of Course I Still Love You and Just Read the Instructions are the sentient space ships in Ian M. Banks’s science fiction novel, The Player of the Games.

Taking notes during this enthralling short course was beyond difficult because I could not avert my eyes from the stunning HD video from almost every conceivable angle. Given technology today, I should not have been surprised, but my visual memory was stuck in the shuttle era. But some commercial aspects remain unchanged. On Saturday we turned into the Discovery Channel, and we greatly enjoyed the program that recounted the history of SpaceX and all of its successes and failures. But when the announcer announced the celebrities, including Katy Perry, who would be part of the launch coverage, we switched back to NASA TV and Launch America.

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Wikipedia

On Launch America the countdown conversation held us rapt, until one of the astronauts uttered a trite cliché, “Let’s light this candle.” Really? The Mylar Puff the Magic Dragon that floated up beside of the seats, described as the zero-g indicator, helped make up for the cliché, and trying to keep up with the speed and altitude readouts, in meters per second and kilometers, quickly buried the B-movie quote in 21st century appreciation and amazement. –Scott Spangler, Editor

ADS-B Turbulence Reports: How Do They Work?

By Scott Spangler on May 18th, 2020 | 7 Comments »
turbulence wx.gov

Weather.gov

The FAA recently posted a fascinating story on Medium, Taking the Turbulence Out of Flight that said ADS-B turbulence reports offer the possibility of more accurate reports on the bumps in the sky. What the story never fully explained is how the ADS-B system would generate the reports.

Like driving on a bumpy road, turbulence is what happens when atmospheric forces result in rapid changes in the vehicle’s horizontal and vertical planes. Its intensity depends on the size of the bump or pothole in the sky. And until this article, reporting such turbulence was a subjective evaluation made by the individual filing a pilot report.

Given a baseline understanding of the system, it is easy to intuit without explanation how the ADS-B turbulence position reports used its GPS WAAS engine. And its extended squitter bandwidth certainly had room for turbulence reports, but it never said how ADS-B would know it was in turbulence.

An FAA ADS-B FAQ page offered clues. ADS-B reports barometric pressure altitude as well as the airplane’s GPS-computed geometric altitude, “the height of the aircraft above the earth ellipsoid.” The two altitudes are not the same, the FAQ explained, “but having both allows for applications that require one or the other as an altitude source and provides a means of verifying correct pressure altitude reporting from the aircraft.”

faa wake turblence

FAA.gov

The next paragraph provides another assumed part of the ADS-B turbulence report puzzle. “ADS-B does not report vertical or horizontal airspeed. Instead, ADS-B reports horizontal and vertical velocity relative to the earth. This velocity is useful for air traffic control functions and ADS-B applications. Airspeed can be provided by other aircraft sensors.” (And speaking of sensors, how will ADS-B separate atmospheric turbulence from the roiling vortices created by other aircraft?)

Might ADS-B turbulence reports be one of the system’s new applications? It seems that the necessary ingredients—position, altitude, and horizontal and vertical velocities—are available for a turbulence-sensing algorithm. But for the reports to have any value, the system must be communicating constantly with a ground station. With an update interval of once a second, that could be considered constant, even with uncompensated latency.

But this is merely an exercise in supposition, a guess of how ADS-B turbulence reports might work. If this guess is anywhere near to close, the best part of it, besides more granular turbulence reports, which any pilot would appreciate, is that that capability might become part of the ADS-B system with a software update, and not the installation of another piece of hardware.

intensity wx.gov

Weather.gov

Another benefit to pilots would be buried in the ADS-B turbulence report algorithm. It would consistently define different aircraft-appropriate levels or categories of turbulence with standardized variations or changes in altitudes and horizontal and vertical velocities. So before making a Pirep, pilot would not have to recall the Turbulence Reporting Criteria Table in the Aeronautical Information Manual. –Scott Spangler, Editor