Aviation lectures at MIT next week

For folks who are already certificated, there are a few guest lectures in our ground school class at MIT next week that might be interesting.

  • Monday, Jan 6, 12:30: flying the Cirrus SR-22 to Europe
  • Monday, 4 pm: “Laz” Gordon talks about the F-22 flight controls (video from last year)
  • Tuesday 4 pm: Eric Zipkin, founder of Tradewind, talks about flying the Tunison Foundation DC-3 in general and across the Atlantic to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of the invasion
  • Wednesday, 10:50 am: Michael Holzwarth talks about drone regulations (yay!) and practical experience as a Hollywood drone pilot (video from last year)
  • Wednesday (Jan 8), 12:00: Oshkosh slide show (me, being Tina’s guest! video from last year)

The fun is in Room 56-114. Except for those who are taking the class for credit, all lectures are offered at a discount of $53,450 from MIT’s normal annual tuition.

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Good Christmas News

Nearly two years ago, I wrote about Scott Booth, a helicopter pilot who suffered injuries in a Grand Canyon accident.

He was recently able to post an update to a GoFundMe page (put together by fellow pilots at Papillon). Simply being alive at this point is an accomplishment and it sounds as though he is making pretty good progress.

Readers: Merry Christmas! (and I hope that none of you end up going through what Scott Booth has)

Related (previous years’ Christmas greetings):

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Two-thirds full airline idea

If you’re traveling today (at prices way higher in the U.S. than in Europe) on a jam-packed pre-holiday commercial flight, perhaps you’ll appreciate this business idea…

The Hainan Boston to Shanghai flight that I took was two-thirds full. The result was that the B787 loaded and unloaded faster than a full B737 or A320. Almost everyone enjoyed an adjacent empty seat.

Is there is a business idea here? Start an airline called “Two Thirds” with Hainan-style reasonable legroom and a guaranteed empty middle seat (exception: a family group of three that actually wants to use the whole row). Charge 50% more per seat (still a great deal compared to business class, which can be 3-7X the price due to the low density of seating). By paying 1.5X the lowest possible fare, the customer is guaranteed not to sit next to a morbidly obese person, overflowing into one’s space. At fares that are 1.5X what is currently charged, I think an airline could make superior profits. Airplanes will turn around faster at airports, so capital asset utilization will be better. Some flights wouldn’t have had more than two thirds occupancy anyway, so the aggregate revenue from a flight would be higher than the average revenue from an airline pursuing the minimum cost, maximum discomfort/crowding strategy.

Readers: Since nobody has tried this, I am going to assume that it is a bad business idea. But why?


  • the Europeans do this already just by calling coach with an empty middle seat “business class”; they’ve proven that people will pay extra for this service, but it isn’t directly comparable since the back of the plane may be jammed and therefore take a long time to load and unload
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Cost of adding 1,000′ of runway

I thought that “Morgantown Municipal Airport set to expand runway with FAA funding” contained two extra zeroes:

The Federal Aviation Administration has given final approval for the extension of the Morgantown Airport runway.

Under the plan, the runway will stretch another 1,000 feet from the current 5,199 feet. Currently, the Morgantown Airport runway is one of the shortest in the state.

The project will cost $50 million and take up to 10 years to complete

Surely it would be $5 million and 1 year?

Then I found the city’s page on the project, which estimated a cost of $45 million.

Does a mountain have to be moved? The airnav page for the airport does not show anything like that. It is a bit tough to interpret the official project plan, and the associated nearly 2,000 pages of environmental assessment documents, but the area of work appears to be fairly flat:

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Pilot shortage partly due to ADHD diagnosis epidemic?

One of my students recently was a 30-year-old who struggled for 14 years before getting an FAA medical certificate. He’d been diagnosed with ADHD as a young teenager (like 13 percent of young people who identify as “boys”), this diagnosis had to be disclosed by law to the FAA Aviation Medical Examiner, and the FAA wasn’t ready to see him serve as a required crewmember.

ADHD diagnoses are up dramatically. Obviously this can’t account for all of the pilot “shortage” (from the perspective of employers; any time salaries have to be raised is an emergency situation), but I wonder if it accounts for at least some of it.

[The ADHD diagnosis rate for girls is not relevant statistically since pilots who identify as “women” are only about 6 percent of the total population. Various explanations for this, but certainly it is not necessary for a woman to work as an airline pilot to have the spending power of an airline pilot. From the Real World Divorce Massachusetts chapter:

“There are a lot of women collecting child support from more than one man,” Nissenbaum noted. “I remember one enterprising young lady who worked as a waitress at Boston’s Logan airport. She targeted three airline pilots, had a child by each of them, and back then was collecting $25,000 in tax-free child support from each pilot. Of course, instead of serving food and beverages, she did have to care for those children.”

Perhaps just as compelling is that a mother who works as an airline pilot may lose custody of what had been her children in the event of a separation from the father(s). A lot of U.S. states award custody based on the “historical primary caregiver” standard and an airline pilot, like a deployed member of the U.S. military, is an almost automatic loser of the war to be seen as “historical primary caregiver”.]

Another area where a lot of potential pilots might be disqualified is drunk driving. The bjs.gov site shows 840,000 arrests of “males” for DUI (278,000 for “females”) in 2014, the most recent year available. A friend of a friend was arrested for DUI after a college party and it was practically impossible for him to get his FAA medical back. He’d actually been in a professional pilot training program. He most certainly was not an alcoholic, but unless he went into all kinds of treatment programs for alcoholics, he was never going to be able to fly. He gave up.

Maybe the DUI problem will sort itself out in a few more years when the glorious age of self-driving is upon us. But ADHD as an effective disqualification for a pilot is worrisome because the condition is vague and subjective and the chance of being diagnosed with ADHD varies by school and state. From “Are Schools Driving ADHD Diagnoses?”:

As the ranks of kids diagnosed with ADHD in this country continue to swell—to 12% of school-age children and as many as 20% of teenage boys, according to the CDC’s latest count—it becomes more and more urgent to look at what forces might be driving this phenomenon. … a child in Kentucky is three times as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD as a child in Nevada. And a child in Louisiana is five times as likely to take medication for ADHD as a child in Nevada. Most of the states with the highest rates of diagnosis and prescriptions for medication are in the South, with some in the Midwest; most of the states with the lowest rates are in the West or Northeast.

Specifically, Drs. Hinshaw and Scheffler’s team found a correlation between the states with the highest rates of ADHD diagnosis and laws that penalize school districts when students fail. … What the team found is that in states that enacted these measures early, within a couple of years rates of ADHD diagnoses started going up, especially for kids near the poverty line.

When I interviewed for a job at a Delta Airlines subsidiary we were given a “cognitive skills” test that measured the ability to multi-task and handle challenges in the face of distraction. Maybe the FAA could authorize some testing centers to bless would-be pilots who had been tarred with the ADHD brush rather than relying on physicians to sound the all clear.

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Twin Commander pilot departs on a pole-to-pole flight

Check out this comprehensive web site on a pole-to-pole flight in a Twin Commander (turboprop) scheduled to start today. The pilot, Robert DeLaurentis, dead-sticked a Lycoming-powered Piper Malibu Mirage into Kuala Lumpur (newspaper story, short on tech details) during a previous round-the-world trip, which is the subject of Zen Pilot.

The Zen Pilot book explains a fair amount about the Malibu trip and the oil system failure. The reputation of the Malibu Mirage is that the engine does not need any encouragement to fail. However, DeLaurentis had equipped the plane with an aftermarket system for adding oil to the engine from within the pressurized cockpit. Airplane engines that are burning nearly one quart of oil per hour will still fly for 3-4 hours without incident. What if one has planned a 12-hour flight, though? It might be possible to burn through all of the oil. So DeLaurentis had the ability to add a quart at a time. Some part of the aftermarket piping likely came loose or was damaged by the Malaysian mechanics trying to change the oil.

Some excerpts from Zen Pilot, whose author seems to be a true son of California:

By anybody else’s measure, I was living the American Dream. I had grown my real estate business to one hundred units. I had all the material comforts anyone could hope for. Yet, I had hit a wall taller than the highest thunderstorm I would face in my years of flying. I was holding myself back from the life that I wanted, and inside me was an emptiness I yearned to fill. My entelechy was nudging me, telling me that at forty-five years of age, I had less and less time to fulfill my life’s true intentions. One day, as I took my daily walk through Balboa Park, something changed. I had begun not to just notice the sights, sounds, and smells I had experienced on my previous walks, but to feel gratitude for them. I determined at that moment to begin my journey to bring purpose and passion into alignment with a higher power. I knew that if I had an impossibly big dream, the Universe would get behind me and partner with me. The resistance would fall away and things would start to flow, slowly at first and then at a feverish pitch.

In the next four years while completing an advanced degree in spiritual psychology with an emphasis in consciousness, health and healing, …

How does a Californian get rich enough to purchase a Piper Malibu and fly it around the world without a plaintiff coming in and taking 75 of those 100 units away via a California family court lawsuit? The author notes that he was never married and had no children. This enabled him to buy a 1997 Malibu in the 18th year and 1400th hour of its life.

Envy the luxury and elegance of traveling around the world in a private airplane?

The survival gear I carried with me on my trip weighed about forty pounds. During my flight I wore my neoprene survival suit, which I not so affectionately referred to as my “Gumby suit.” It smelled like perspiration and rubber and was designed to cover the entire body from head to toe and form a tight seal around the face. Imagine a red ping pong ball floating on the water getting kicked around by waves for hours on end while taking in an occasional mouthful of saltwater, with God only knows what swimming around you. I also had packed items including a life raft, lighted life preservers, dye packets, fishing gear and a knife and an ax to cut my way out of my seat belts and the plane if necessary. My plane had an onboard satellite locator beacon and I wore another one around my neck. The survival bag had backup handheld marine and aviation radios as well as a satellite phone. Additionally, I was required to carry several million dollars in survival insurance; I had evacuation and medical insurance as well.

A critical part of this kit is the Garmin inReach satellite SOS and text message handheld.

If women are the new children, what happens when a white adult male sets off to conquer the vast oceans with one middle-aged piston engine? No mucho, as they say in San Diego:

My digital marketing PR team had crafted and released an amazing press release the day before my departure. We hoped the sendoff would have reporters from major TV channels, newspapers and radio stations. Surprisingly, the media was nowhere to be seen.

How well does Piper’s notoriously Mickey Mouse landing gear hold up on the round-the-world odyssey? It fails less than one minute into the first leg:

At four hundred feet above the runway my landing gear failed to properly retract. I was dragging my nose wheel. The engine—a 350-hp Lycoming twin turbocharged one—was at full horsepower trying to deal with the extra weight of the ninety gallons and 540 pounds of extra fuel I was carrying.

Maybe a TBM next time!

Like everyone else who isn’t an airline pilot, he has trouble using and interpreting the onboard weather radar.

Our California hero gets some advice from a young MIT hero:

I recall a text response I got from fellow earthrounder named Matt Guthmiller when I inquired what weather site he used. He said that he found most of the weather info worthless once he got into Asia because the different weather reporting services forecast towering cumulous clouds and thunderstorms every day. So you would either park your plane and not fly for the next two months or deal with it. He was right. Flying without reliable weather reporting around the world was a chilling point to consider.

Controllers in foreign countries make the author appreciate FAA-run ATC. Our Malibu pilot gets vectors into weather that might make sense for a heavy jet with hot wings. Foreign airports similarly make the author appreciate even the most rapacious U.S. FBO. Muscat, Oman is a particularly bad stop. The author is left out on the ramp in 110-degree high humidity weather, interrogated and nearly arrested, and delayed for a day before the folks at the airport can be bothered to deliver some 100LL fuel at $20/gallon.

The author has some difficulty in managing the extra fuel tanks. He mistakenly pumps some extra fuel from a ferry tank into one of the main tanks, where it is promptly vented overboard. Not great when you’re paying $20/gallon and hoping to cross an ocean with a decent reserve. He takes advantage of a 23-knot tailwind and slows down to an economy cruise speed.

He is not impressed with what the white man has brought to Samoa:

The four days I stayed on Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa—a cluster of tiny islands in the middle of the Pacific and two thousand nautical miles from any real form of civilization—were frightening for me. It’s hard to describe, but the feel of the island made my skin crawl. Imagine a tribal culture that somehow was rapidly updated with some American infrastructure with cell phones, an airport, McDonald’s and sketchy Internet. But beyond that, it felt like the people were still driven by thousands of years of tribal tradition, like they didn’t really want any of the new lifestyle that had been thrust upon them. And for that matter, they could do without the occasional visitors as well.

Haris Suleman‘s round-the-world Bonanza flight came to a sad end on departure from Pago Pago. The author’s very nearly does as well. He was distracted with some mechanical issues (the engine had possibly burned as many as six quarts of oil in the preceding eight hours!) and did not explicitly ask for the 10,000′ runway. The controller assigned his plane, 10 percent overweight, to the 3,800’ crosswind runway. He accepted the clearance and barely made it over a fence. Good reminder to always have the airport diagram in front of you when taxiing!

Think that pilots are intrepid heroes?

I never told anyone I was afraid, but the truth was that after the engine out in Malaysia I was genuinely terrified every day. It was like I was stepping into a flying coffin.

I had taken enormous risks each and every day of the trip. The people who had begged me not to do the trip were in fact right.

Flying around the world didn’t make me a more confident pilot. If anything, it made me more aware of the risks that were possible. I had become more paranoid, detailed, serious, cautious and just simply afraid. I was questioning what I could really control in my life.

He finds out that veteran ferry pilots are also routinely scared prior to departure. He has conversations with God. (She reassures him that “You are being prepared for something greater than you can even imagine. … You are loved more than you will ever know. You are always with me.” But why wasn’t she with Haris Suleman and his father?)

My summary: Being is a pilot is not about never being afraid. It is about acting rationally even when you are afraid.

Pilots are constantly reminded that training is important:

I thought back to my three years of graduate-level spiritual psychology training. I could not believe that the voices in my head could be true this time.

On the last leg from Hawaii, he writes about how the job can be made easy with proper engineering:

I had been instructed to turn the HF radio on once I was about seventy-five miles out from Honolulu. I was reporting my position every hour. The radio was constantly hissing, popping and shrieking. I could hear the commercial airline pilots reporting their positions as well. I thought about the fact that they were doing this trip with much less stress than I was. No HF radio power supply and heat source mounted one-quarter inch from a fuel tank sitting behind them; no piston engine pounding away at 2,400 rpm trying to blow itself apart; no issues of low manifold pressure; no mystery oil-loss issue but instead two or four giant Rolls-Royce turbofan engines that were each purring away one hundred times more reliably than mine. They had multiple pilots so one could take a nap if he got tired and let’s not forget lots of hot food and flight attendants. I thought, I need a flight attendant. On my next trip I would definitely have one.

He doesn’t have a flight attendant, I don’t think, on this flight, but he does have two turbine engines. Good luck to Robert DeLaurentis.

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Poem for Combat Pilot Veterans

It is Veterans Day.

When I was in Ireland back in May/June, I learned that, despite being part of the UK at the time, Irish men were exempt from the World War I draft. Nonetheless, quite a few volunteered. The most dangerous job was surely that of pilot. William Butler Years wrote a poem about these volunteers: “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” The first few lines…

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;

In our risk-averse age it is difficult to fathom how anyone would have volunteered to serve in combat in World War I, let alone volunteer to get into a machine that most pilots would today consider far too dangerous to take around the pattern.

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Scariest thought ever: Come to MIT in January for our class

Happy Halloween!

Dr. Tina (a real doctor of aeronautical engineering) and I are teaching an FAA ground school at MIT in January once again. The course is free and open to anyone, though only MIT students get credit.

What could be scarier than (a) coming to Boston in mid-January, (b) suffering through one of my lectures?

(If you can’t make it, all of the materials can be downloaded from the course web site, which also links to YouTube videos that were captured by MIT Video Productions during the 2019 class.)


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