Learning the history of aviation from the U.S. government

The U.S. government-produced video running behind the replica Wright Flyer at the Wright Brothers National Memorial shows the arc of aviation starting at Kill Devil Hills and ending with U.S. government-run programs such as the Blue Angels, the USAF, and NASA. All advances occur within the U.S. Entirely left out: the importance of the Wright Brothers’ time in France (the U.S. government was initially unreceptive to the Wrights); the first modern airplane (Bleriot, in France); the British invention of the jet engine (led by Frank Whittle); the jet-powered commercial airlines and airfreight services that have enabled our global economy:

Note the two propellers driven by one engine. What kind of rating would be necessary to fly that today? It is not “multi-engine” per se, but what if the drive to one prop fails? It would yaw just like a multi-engine plane on a single engine.

[Also potentially interesting: in the official government history of aviation, after Wilbur and Orville Wright completed their 1903 flights all of the notable advances were made by women. In the photos above, for example, Bessie Coleman is important enough to cite by name while the Tuskegee Airmen appear in an anonymous group (thanks for your 1578 combat missions, though!). Olga Custodio, the “First Latina to complete US Air Force pilot training,” is cited on the “Inventors” screen (Wikipedia does not credit her with any inventions). Amelia Earhart is featured (why not Jacqueline Cochrane instead?) and also Louise Thaden (from Bentonville, Arkansas, now an important center of aviation thanks to the Walton family). Sad: Kalpana Chawla is cited as the “first woman of Indian origin in space” (she was killed due to incompetent group decision-making (by government workers) in the foam-damaged shuttle Columbia).]

The wing-shaped stone monument started in 1928 is awesome: “Conceived by Genius; Achieved by Dauntless Resolution…”

The North Carolina state government set up its own monument in 2003: a life-size bronze sculpture by Stephen H. Smith of the team launching the first flight. Photography nerds will appreciate the bronze view camera!

The original takeoff and landing locations from December 17, 1903 are marked with impressive stones and engravings. Example:

[I wonder if these locations are approximate, though. There was no GPS back in those days. I don’t think the Wright Brothers bothered to make a careful survey of the sandy/scrubby field and then leave permanent survey monuments behind for future generations.]

AOPA members will appreciate seeing their dues put to good use in a pilot lounge built next to the adjacent 3,000′ KFFA runway. But how well does requiring secret pilot knowledge to get in work in the age of LTE and Google?

The surrounding area reflects a world changed more by the automobile than the airplane. The Wright Brothers had to seek help from the guys manning the local U.S. Life-Saving Service station (merged into Coast Guard in 1915) as the local population was only about 300. Today if they needed big guys to lug a glider up a dune they could wander over to the adjacent Try My Nuts and Duck Donuts. From the top of the dune one can see a wide strip of houses, stores, condos, etc. stretching to the horizon in both directions. U.S. population has grown a little more than 4X since 1903, but the summer population of Kill Devil Hills is more than 100X larger than it was in 1903. Nearly all of these folks arrive by car.

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First Officer Fame

In a room of about 70 people at MIT (mixture of undergrad, grad, and alum), I asked how many thought that Captain Sully had another pilot up front with him in the Airbus A320 that landed on the Hudson.

A few hands went up.

“What was his name?”

Blank stares. One student seemed to be struggling and then came out with something that sounded almost like “Jeff Skiles“.

I gave him $20 on behalf of current and former First Officers.

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Short guide to breaking in a new piston aircraft engine

Mike Busch, author of “the big book on piston engines,” has a helpful article in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of COPA Pilot, the Cirrus owners’ group’s magazine. Busch explains why engines need to be run hard for a few initial hours and then offers a concrete procedure:

Break in the engine by running it as close to maximum continuous power as possible without allowing any CHT to exceed 420F for Continental cylinders or 440F for Lycoming cylinders. Run it this hard for an hour or two until you see the CHTs come down noticeably , indicating that the lion’s share of the break-in is complete.

This requires running at nearly full throttle at a low altitude (the engine won’t generate more than about 75 percent power after climbing to an ordinary cruising altitude of 6,000 or 7,000′ due to the lower density of air molecules up there).

This is timely for me because we’ll be breaking in a new engine for the Cirrus SR20. After 14 years and roughly 2,000 flight hours it seems prudent to swap out the engine, despite the fact that it hasn’t given any signs of ill health (this is contrary to Busch’s recommendation to wait until the engine tells you it is sick and then maybe only replace one cylinder).

Maintenance shops say that they hate dealing with Continental and love Lycoming, which might be one reason why Cirrus has switched to the Lycoming IO-360 engine for the more recent SR20s. Our little cluster of T-hangars also contains at least one story of a Continental engine that failed after a few hundred hours due to manufacturing defects and terrible support from Continental (instead of sending out a new replacement engine for the nearly new aircraft, the best that Continental would do is take the old engine back, try to fix it, etc. That would have resulted in months of downtime at a minimum. So far the wisdom of the shops has been proven correct. We had some issues with our order and couldn’t even get a return phone call from Ernesto Rodriguez, the customer support manager at Continental. I kind of like the idea of the 200 hp 6-cylinder Continental engine in the SR20 as offering greater smoothness than a 4-cylinder engine (what Cirrus is buying now from Lycoming), but one notable feature is that the per-mile cost of engine reserve actually becomes higher for the older SR20 compared to the SR22 (they both use 6-cylinder Continental engines and the cost of overhaul or swap-with-reman or swap-with-new prices are almost identical between the 200 hp SR20 engine and the 310 hp SR22 engine, as you might expect given that the mechanical configuration is pretty similar other than dimensions). To minimize interactions with Continental and save about $12,000, perhaps the smarter thing to have done would have been to wait for the engine to get sick and then ship it to one of Busch’s favorite field overhaul shops (see previous post: https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2018/08/13/euthanasia-for-aircraft-engines/).

Why do engines need breaking in? Busch has some interesting figures showing the grooves in a new cylinder that are supposed to make the barrel “oil-wettable”. These have a spiky top that you want to grind down with hard usage to slightly flatter. Busch says that ordinary Philips 20W-50 “might be a better choice for break-in oil” than the traditional straight-weight Aeroshell W100.

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El Chapo’s Temporary Flight Restriction

Before a recent night flight from Hanscom Field (KBED) to Land of Gulfstreams (Teterboro, NJ; KTEB), I decided to call the official government-sponsored weather briefer at Leidos. The KTEB folks were shutting down one runway and I wanted to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything else important.

The briefer asked “You’re familiar with El Chapo’s TFR in Brooklyn?” I hadn’t heard about it, but it seems that El Chapo is being protected by a temporary flight restriction centered on the courthouse, with a radius of 0.4 miles, and from the surface up to 1,500′. The user-friendly page doesn’t mention El Chapo, but the XML text does:

<XNOTAM-Update xmlns:xsi="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema-instance" xsi:noNamespaceSchemaLocation="http://atasoap.atalab.faa.gov/NOTAMS/xNOTAM.xsd" version="0.1" origin="" created="2019-01-21T06:40:13">
<txtLocalName>190107-190228 NYC El Chapo New</txtLocalName>

<txtNameUSState>NEW YORK</txtNameUSState>

Separately, let me say thanks to the good folks at Meridian TEB. It is a bad day for any FBO when a piston-powered aircraft shows up and that’s especially true at Teterboro (do you want to sell 15 gallons of 100LL to Joe CFI in the flight school Cessna or 2000 gallons of jet fuel to Gulfstream Al (Gore) or the Clinton Foundation?). Meridian has always been friendly and helpful, even keeping midget chocks around for those of us who fly Cirrus or similar. This was a business trip and my departure was set for Official Polar Vortex Panic Day. It was 3 degrees overnight on the ramp and warmed up only to about 12 by mid-day. Starting an aluminum aircraft engine after it has been cold-soaked does a lot of damage. Meridian kept the plane in their warm maintenance hangar overnight and until our 2 pm departure. It is ground-support folks like this that make personal aviation practical in the U.S.

Finally, now that the shutdown is over, our local government workers are working 24/7. Email received today:

Please be advised that the Bedford Air Traffic Control tower will provide ATC services during the overnight hours 2300-0700, this Sunday night, after the Super Bowl.

Additional Airport Operations staff will be on hand to support the increased aircraft arrivals.

(usually the tower is closed from 11 pm to 7 am)

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Want to know what a test pilot actually does?

If you want to know what a test pilot actually does, explained in a way that is technical and precise yet comprehensible and clear to non-experts, let me recommend watching Day 3 – PM session from http://web.mit.edu/webcast/16.687/iap2019/

(Diogo Castilho, an F-16 pilot from the Brazilian Air Force who is finishing his Ph.D. in aero/astro at MIT, talks about a couple of flight test programs)

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Flying above 5,000′ cabin altitude

In our FAA ground school I had to show students a slide reminding them that FAR 91.211 requires oxygen for a pilot exposed to cabin altitudes above 14,000′ (and when flying between 12,500′ and 14,000′ after  30 minutes). They’ll be tested on that. From experience, however, I know that I feel more alert if I keep the (typically shorter) Cirrus flights to 7,500′ and the (sometimes long) Pilatus PC-12 flights to cabin altitude of no more than 5,000′.

“A Medical Look at Hypoxia” by Kevin Ware, a physician and ATP/CFI is an interesting article from a recent Twin&Turbine. The doc/pilot notes that the narrowing of arteries that comes with aging (and an American diet!) makes it tougher for the brain to get sufficient oxygen when starved due to altitude:

In summary, when a pressurized piston or turboprop aircraft is in the high 20 flight levels and operating just as it was designed (cabin altitude of 10,000–12,000 feet), the pilot’s body is only being supplied with half the oxygen available at sea level. This, in turn, triggers the Bohr effect, further decreasing the amount of oxygen available to the brain and heart, which if the pilot is of mature age, are already compromised due to the narrowing of blood vessels. … Given this physiologic reality, is it really safe for pilots with grey hair and some common health issues such as elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, and possible arterial narrowing, to operate pressurized aircraft at their highest legal altitudes with cabin altitudes? The answer is probably not. But, if the pilot is willing, some steps can be taken to lower the physiologic risk to a more acceptable level, and it involves the use of supplemental oxygen.

Supplemental oxygen is something that needs to be used before hypoxia is present because its effect on the brain is very insidious and makes such recognition of what is occurring, and the logical solutions that would follow, nearly impossible. The best solution to recognizing the gradual onset of hypoxia is to wear a pulse oximeter anytime the cabin altitude is above 5,000 feet and watch the numbers on the dial.

Worth a read if you’re trying to decide if it makes sense to climb up another
4,000′ in a turboprop to save 15 gallons of fuel. Also if you’re trying to decide on whether to pay up for a pressurized plane or rely on supplemental oxygen. The author of this article implies that the typical buyer of a high-performance turbocharged, but not pressurized, piston airplane should be breathing supplemental oxygen for 95 percent of the flights.

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Slide Rule by Nevil Shute

A reader was kind enough to give me a hardcopy(!) version of Slide Rule by Nevil Shute. It turns out that the popular novelist was an aeronautical engineer during the golden age of aviation. One of the luxuries of getting in on the early days was working with two of the greats: Geoffrey de Havilland and Barnes Wallis, of Dambusters fame.

Shute says that “the halcyon period … died with the second world war when aeroplanes had grown too costly and too complicated for individuals to build or even to operate.” Those are fighting words at Oshkosh and I think that Game Composites refutes this gloomy perspective to some extent (albeit one of the “individuals” had to be a Walmart heir!).

Shute was an airship designer at a time when a government-run operation was building the R101 (crashed and burned due to incompetence, according to Shute) in competition with the R100, a private effort. I still can’t figure out how airships ever worked. The R100 made it to Canada and back, but got kicked up 4,000 fpm in a light thunderstorm. The British airship industry was doomed by the crash of the R101 and improvements in heavier-than-air planes, but I don’t know why anyone thought that it would ever be practical given the power of Nature and the inability of an airship to outrun a storm.

Social norms were different between the Wars. Shute describes a “married woman living apart from her husband, who established herself in the village while her divorce matured.” Her sexual relationship with one of his bachelor test pilots results in an uprising by the “Wives Trades Union of Yorkshire,” upset that they might have to encounter “that woman.” (see Real World Divorce for how things have changed for the better, from a plaintiff’s perspective, in England!) Shute says that he prefers a married-with-children test pilot who will bring back a prototype at the first sign of trouble.

Airship aviation is an indoor/outdoor experience. Crew members are able to walk on top of the ship, move around outside to make repairs while the airship is flying, go to sleep in a cabin, etc. The weather has to be crazy bad before there is anything that could be called “turbulence” to disturb passengers.

The book covers topics that would be familiar today to anyone involved in startups: raising money and growing a business despite a shortage of capital. Shute co-founded an airplane manufacturer called Airspeed Ltd. in 1931 (i.e., during the Great Depression). Despite an industry that grew as fast as hoped, a war that resulted in huge demand from governments around the world, and thousands of airplanes produced and flown away by customers, the company never thrived financially and was eventually absorbed into de Havilland. A cautionary tale for those who today would try to make money on self-driving cars, electric cars, solar power, or any other obviously booming technology. Shute’s Airspeed simply couldn’t make a significant profit in the face of competition from higher-volume manufacturers that kept reducing their unit costs. The Royal Family bought an Airspeed Envoy, but that still wasn’t enough to stave off the competition.

Shute is eventually pushed out (1938), which he says in retrospect was a smart decision: “I would divide the senior executives of the engineering world into two categories, the starters and the runners, the men with a creative instinct who can start a new venture and the men who can run it to make it show a profit. They are very seldom combined in the same person. … I was a starter and useless as a runner…”

So… to Wes: thanks! to everyone else: read Slide Rule if you’re interested in aviation, engineering, or entrepreneurship.

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Aeronautical Decision-Making 101: Runway Length

If you’re planning on flying the family somewhere for Christmas…

A couple of months ago at our flight school office one of our Private students was slaving away on preflight planning like it was 1970. She was preparing a navigation log of headings and times taking into account forecast wind and magnetic variation. All computations done on an E6B slide rule, of course!

I asked why she was doing this, given that nearly all of the planes in our rental fleet have a panel-mount certified GPS with moving map and, should that fail, we’re in an environment completely covered by Air Traffic Control radar. She explained that her instructor failed the GPS on every cross-country flight and made her do everything old-school. Her day job is engineering so this effort isn’t overtaxing her brain, but will it contribute to practical safety?

I shared with her a text message exchange that I’d had a few days earlier with a rental customer for the Cirrus SR20. The guy holds a Commercial Pilot certificate with Instrument rating. He has 750 hours of flight time.

Background: FAR 121 requires that airline crews that include two professional full-time highly proficient pilots (well, except when I was flying the CRJ!) be able to land within 60 percent of the available runway.

Me: How much fuel do you want in the plane for your flight on Saturday?

Him: Top off, please.

Me: You’re going to fly for six hours? Where are you going?

Him: Albany.

Me: That’s a one-hour flight. The plane cruises faster and lands more smoothly if you’re not right up near the max landing weight of 2900 lbs.

Him: There’s no fuel available at the airport.

Me: There’s no fuel at Albany? The crosswind runway is 7200′!

Him: I’m going to 5B7. I’m taking my son to visit Rensselaer.

Me: That’s a 2670′ runway in “poor” condition with obstacles. The Cirrus needs about 2100′ to land over a 50′ obstacle so you’d be flying your son with less safety margin that what is required for an airline crew and making it more challenging by going in heavy. The A/FD says “TRANSIENT ACFT CALL (518) 596-5947 FOR FIELD CONDS PRIOR TO ARR.”. The airport is unattended. If you blow a tire there, how long before the plane gets back out?

Him: <not convinced that this airport is a bad idea

Me: Incidentally, East Coast Aero Club has a 3000′ runway minimum with a handful of exceptions such as Block Island.

Him: I didn’t know that. It’s too bad. I was thinking of going to South Albany (4B0) instead.

Me: 4B0 is 2853′ with a displaced threshold in both directions, so really more like a 2700′ runway. KALB is 8500′ for the big runway, has fuel cheaper than the reimbursement rate, no fees if you buy a handful of gallons, and is actually a shorter drive to RPI than either 5B7 or 4B0. The FBO at KALB can fix the plane if something goes wrong and have you back in the air two hours later. Why would you want to go to an unattended airport with a short runway instead?

Him: I thought it would be easier than dealing with an FBO.

I still can’t grasp why a high-time-by-GA-standards pilot wouldn’t see the safety advantage of an 8500′ runway in a massive clearing over a 2700′ poor condition runway that is surrounded by trees. Nor can I fathom why someone wouldn’t want the option of support from an FBO that underprices its services (Million Air at Albany is surely not hoping for an influx of piston-powered aircraft tanking up with 20 gallons of 100LL!). There is always the possibility of a tire or spark plug failure.

A passenger would likely have been safer going to Albany with the student pilot (if it were legal) than with this Commercial-IFR guy with an aversion to FBOs.

Maybe as instructors we should take students to some bigger airports and deluxe FBOs to highlight the value offered by both? It’s great that the U.S. has lots of little airports, but it usually doesn’t make safety sense to use them when a big airport is actually closer to the ultimate destination.

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Veterans Day Observed (F-35)

Today we observe Veterans Day.

In addition to remembering those who died in previous wars, let’s consider our arsenal for the next ones.

The F-35 was used in combat by the US for the first time in September (Reuters story on attacking a ground target in Afghanistan; maybe a drone could have done this?). Wikipedia says that taxpayers began funding this program in 1992 and that the plane first flew in 2000 (prototype) and 2006 (production version). So it was 26 years from the start of development to the first military use, longer than the interval between World War I and World War II.

Comparison: The B-29, the most technologically advanced plane that we had in World War II, was requested by the Air Corps in December 1939, first flew in 1942, and was used in combat in June 1944 (5.5 years after the start of the program).

Should we be happy with Donald Trump for not starting any new wars? Or unhappy with him for not disentangling us from places where we apparently can’t win (or even define “win”)? See “Who Is Winning the War in Afghanistan? Depends on Which One” (nytimes, August 18), for example.

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