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Nov 26
A quick fall update

'Sup, youse guys?!?

I'm hitting y'all up with a quick email about the plans for Higgins and Hansel this fall. I'm sure you'll all agree that fall is about the crappiest time of year to fly, what with unpredictable winds, rain, fog, and butt-ugliness in general. With that in mind, I'm hoping to get a few of the long-standing issues resolved so that we can hit the ground running next spring. I don't know about you lot, but I, personally, have vowed to fly MUCH more frequently next year. With a measly 50 hours during the previous 12 months, I'm 50% off my goal – and ready to move onto my instrument and commercial this coming calendar year.

What issues have been resolved?

  • Sputter
    At the time of our last annual, the IA discovered that Higgins was sporting two bad plugs and two "questionable" plugs. Rather than replace only the bad plugs, I opted to replace the whole lot, and keep the remaining plugs as spares. Some of you have reported a "sputter" in Higgins when throttling back after departure, or upon turning downwind during your approaches. In my opinion, the new set of plugs eliminated this. I've flown Higgins a handful of time since then, and haven't seen any sign of the sputter.
  • Oil Leak
    After flying Hansel one evening, Steve Swapp reported oil on the windscreen, difficulty closing the door, and slightly sticky flaps. We called Emmitt and Clay Lacy, who agreed to give the plane a once-over. He oiled the tracks for the flaps, and found several possible sources for oil leaks. He re-torqued the oil scavenger tube hose clamps, the induction air hose clamps, and the oil filter tube and oil pan bolts. He also cleaned the engine compartment. Swapp reported one last spot of oil on the windscreen, but after investigating, decided that it was likely residual oil in the piano hinge since no additional reports have been heard.
  • Dead battery
    Higgins' battery was dead this morning. We placed it on a trickle charger according to manufacturer's instructions, and it seems to be cranking headily at this point. If you notice the engine becoming slow to turn over, let someone know so that we can look into it.
  • New binders
    I know it's not a huge deal, but given my current travel schedule, any progress is good progress.

    What issues are still outstanding?
  • Propellers (again)
    As with the intermittent sputter, I've had the propellers inspected in-person by several A&Ps, and some via photo/video. All suggested that the gouges were "nothing to worry about", but should be handled at some point. Our IA, after inspecting both propellers, advised us not to treat the props with anything more than a light sanding and a coat of paint to prevent oxidation. He suggested, and Big Al concurred, that more invasive procedures often lead to additional issues and shorter propeller life. He was confident in his statement that propeller service - like most cosmetic surgeries - often introduce additional issues and may result in unwanted or unexpected side effects. This seems to be a recurring question/issue for some folks. I plan to take both planes down to Jeff and Drew at Northwest at TIW and have them inspected again. If they still think that there's nothing to worry about, I'll have them add a note to the log book to settle the issue officially.
  • Hansel's oil is still black
    I'm as unhappy as anyone else about the color of Hansel's oil. You'll recall that it began to appear black after only a few hours' flight time beginning last spring. I am being reassured by each mechanic with whom I speak that this behavior is not uncommon. Further, each successive compression test shows consistently good performance of all cylinders, with none under 72 psi. We've been told that we can spend $10,000.00 to tear the engine apart and locate the source of the issue, or we can decrease the time between oil changes to 25 hours. I've chosen the latter option to date, but with the onset of the shitty weather I'm considering have the jugs pulled, honed, and having new rings installed on the pistons. Both our friends at NW Aviation and at Avion as certain that this will rectify the black oil issue, and while the cowls are off, I'll have the oil drain replaced and the entire engine compartment cleaned and inspected for additional oil seepage.
  • The nose gear damper on both planes is low on fluid. The nose shimmies like a bastard when taking off and landing.
    Actually, we don't think it's the damper itself, but the bushings in the nose gear – particularly the scissors. There are bushing kits available, and we'll get these replaced at the same time we have the jugs serviced and the props inspected.
  • Hansel's carpet is sliding around and really pissing me off
    I know, guys! It's pissing ME off, too! You all probably know that my tolerance for little issues like this is VERY low. I reached out to our buddy Ray at Aircraft Interiors, Inc., to let him know about the issue. The very next time I can make it over to his office I'll place the order for the new carpet and get this fixed.
  • Higgins – corrosion
    Most of you know that – like me - Higgins is originally from the Bay Area. Many of you have probably noticed the little sports of powdery corrosion on various parts of his skin. We need to look into getting that brushed off, primed, and painted before spring. That's definitely on the list of "boring stuff to do" this year.

    In a nutshell, here are the planned maintenance tasks for this coming winter:

  • Cylinders honed
  • New rings
  • Thorough engine compartment cleaning/inspection
  • Prop inspection
  • Replace nose strut scissors bushings
  • Floor pan carpets
  • Fuzzy dice on the windscreen divider

  • Skin wire brushed, painted
  • Prop inspection
  • Replace nose strut scissors bushings
  • Floor pan carpets
  • Fuzzy dice on the windscreen divider

    Miscellaneous questions/comments

    Stephen, are you in the running for People Magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" again this year?

    Yes, I made the cut again. This will be the… fourth? fifth? year in a row. I've lost to Tom Hardy, David Beckham, Johnny Depp, and George Clooney. It's not a big deal, and in fact, it makes me feel like an object. Women are always approaching me and making lewd comments. Makes me think of THIS video:

    Is there anything we can do to help out?
    For sure. Fly more often. If you owe money (like Evan Ungurean, who is probably flying F-15s by now), pay up. Clean the planes on occasion. Be mindful that you don't step on Higgins' vortex generators. Update your flight times in Flight Schedule Pro so I can keep better track of Hobbs and tach times. Be nice to your fellow students, renters, and instructors (except Tom VanDam - he's wretched). Invite me over to your house for pancakes.

    As always, my thanks to everyone for flying with us! It is my goal for everyone to feel as though they're a part of a small but awesome flying community. I hope you'll feel some sense of ownership in the planes and that you'll treat them as such.

    Please bear with me during the fall as I struggle to complete my mandatory training for my new job. I'll be looking forward to flying with you all again just as soon as work will allow.

    Thanks, and happy flying!
Sep 01
If being afraid of turbulence is a crime, then I'm guilty as charged!

When I was a wee youngster, I was fearless. If my poor ol' mother knew even a fraction of the nonsensical stunts I pulled, she'd absolutely freak. I've leapt from my friend Heath's van into the back of my friend Michael's truck while driving down the highway. I've ridden on the suspension of freight trains. My friend Greg and I both crossed the Auburn-Forresthill bridge using nothing but the superstructure below the bridge deck. Believe you me: I was fearless.

Twenty five years and a serious motorcycle accident later, I've got a confession to make: I'm afraid of turnulence. And, being a pilot, that's not a good thing. Almost every flight haa at least a few bumps and jolts - and usually happens just as I get comfortably settled into my cruise. Some people - my friend Jeff, for example - think it's interesting and perhaps fun. I, however, do not. Despite dreading it, I know down-deep that it's nothing to worry about. As part of my cathartic attempt to understand understand the phenomenon, I met with King 5 meterologist Jeff Renner to get his take on what exactly causes turbulence and how bad it can get.

You see, Jeff knows a little something about the weather: he earned a bachelor of science degree in atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington in 1988, and is currently the chief meteorologist for KING 5 News. And, in addition, he also holds a commercial pilot's license for land and seaplanes, and is a CFI to boot. So all in all, he's a pretty righteous dude.

As Jeff explains it, there's wind everywhere - both aloft and at the surface. Because of the effect of friction between the surface of the earth (and buildings, trees, et cetera), the winds are much stronger aloft than they are on the ground. Figure 1 shows the differences in wind speed near the surface and at 36,000 feet, a typical cruising altitude for passenger jets. The red areas indicate winds over 125 knots (or about 144 miles per hour) – seemingly well over hurricane-force! To pilots, however, they're not really much like a hurricane at at all. Airplanes routinely fly through winds in excess of 150 or 200 miles per hour with relative ease because although the winds aloft are very fast, they are also for the most part blowing steadily. And just as a small raft can smoothly float down a fast-moving river, an airplane can cruise right along within the jet stream.

Now, while the core of the jet stream is typically quite smooth, the fringes and edges are not. It's common for the wind speed to change speed by 100 knots or more in the space of only 10 or 20 miles. Given that a Piper Warrior cruises at 2 miles per minutes and a 737 may cruise at 9 miles per minute, this is not a very large distance. When the wind speed changes this rapidly, the flow of air can become very turbulent – meaning that the air will begin to move chaotically in all directions. When your airplane flies into this area of turbulent air, it's pushed around on all its axes. To illustrate this point, if the right wing is hit by an upward moving wind gust, the plane will bank left a bit. If both wings encounter downward moving air, the plane will "drop" suddenly, causing the roller coaster-like stomach-rising sensation that I hate so much. As the plane flies through these changing winds at relatively high speed, these chaotic movements blend together into a series of rapid leaps, jerks, jolts, and bumps. This is the famous "clear air turbulence" that I dread, and even worse, it can occur without warning and in completely cloudless skies.

When we fly in the summertime, the sky is usually full of fluffy cumulous clouds. You probably know that each cloud is an indication of an updraft, or an area of upward moving air. This happens because, as the sun begins heating the surface of the earth, the air nearest the ground warms more quickly than the air aloft, creating a significant temperature difference. Since hot air rises, the warmer air near the surface moves up. And, since colder air can hold less water than warmer air, at a certain point the moisture in the rising air is "leaked" out and condenses into a cloud. A big ugly thunderstorm is simply just a bigger, more violent version of this phenomena: the core of a storm consists of a powerful updraft surrounded by equally powerful downdrafts.

When your airplane takes off into the blue summer sky, you'll fly through these upward and downward moving air currents, and you'll be pushed up and down as a matter of course. This, you see, is why flights in the summer are often bumpiest near the ground, and also why thunderstorms cause severe turbulence (and we damned sure avoid them at all costs).

It's also frequently turbulent when flying over or near mountains, as you've probably observed if you've ever flown into Denver in the winter. This happens when surface winds blowing over mountains are pushed up-hill by the terrain, which in turn pushes the faster winds aloft up, thereby creating a ripple effect throughout the lower atmosphere. As Figure 2 shows, these "mountain waves" can break just like ocean waves, generating areas of chaotic motion and turbulence.

When asked how bad the turbulence could get, Jeff told me that there are four official levels of turbulence – light, moderate, severe, and extreme. These, he mentioned, are subjective measures: there are no hard-and-fast rules for the classification of turbulence. The vast, vast majority of turbulence is light, he explained, and most people will never experience anything more than that. When flying on a commercial airliner, you can get a sense of the strength of turbulence by watching your drink on the tray table. In light turbulence your drink will slosh around, but remain inside the cup; in moderate turbulence, your drink will be in your lap and the cup will be on the floor, and in severe turbulence, the drink and the cup will be on the ceiling - as will you unless you're belted in. Extreme turbulence is basically confined to thunderstorm cores and is almost never encountered by commercial aircraft. If you'd like to see some, go hitch a ride with the hurricane hunters or the Coast Guard.

The obvious question is whether any of this is dangerous, and the answer is quite definitely no, as long as you have your seatbelt on. There are an average of 8 instances each year where flight attendants are injured in severe turbulence, but considering that there are over one hundred million (100,000,000) people who fly each year in the US alone. Obviously, the chances of anyone ever seeing this happen are quite low. Severe turbulence will certainly create mayhem in the cabin, but the g-forces that it subjects the aircraft to are not especially extreme, almost always in the range of -1g to 2g, which is less than on many roller coasters. And although light to moderate turbulence may be uncomfortable, it has basically no effect on the airplane.

Predicting turbulence is unfortunately a difficult task, but one that the National Weather Service and various research groups are actively working on. The NOAA Aviation Weather Center provides model-based predictions of turbulence, and all airlines have internal meteorology departments that provide global turbulence guidance to pilots and the dispatchers who make the airline's flight plans. The problem is that turbulence is extremely localized and basically undetectable – while thunderstorms are easily avoided, clear air and mountain wave turbulence can occur without warning. A turbulence prediction might specify an entire area of the country as susceptible to moderate turbulence, but most of the time there will only be a few pilot reports of the turbulence actually occurring. This makes it impossible to plan a flight that is guaranteed to be bump-free. However, pilots do report turbulent conditions to alert other airplanes in the area. So, if you receive a report of turbulence ahead, you may try to deviate or change to a smoother altitude if possible.

Regardless of our troubles pinpointing turbulence, almost every flight experiences nothing more than slight bumps. In an interview with The Telegraph, a British Airways captain said that in over 10,000 hours of flying he had seen about five minutes of severe turbulence. And there has not been a single crash caused by turbulence in a modern airplane.

Personally, I've never seen anything more than light turbulence. And it's also reasonably likely that I never will see more than light or perhaps a short bit of moderate in my career. But if things do happen to get wild on my next flight, I'll just just keep the seat belt on and pretend I'm in a roller coaster – definitely uncomfortable, but very far from dangerous.

Aug 15
Getting into (and out of) Boeing Field (KBFI)

When I was a kid, Keith Lee's brother, Hut (yes, his name was "Hut") was a big, scary-lookin' dude. He was tall, built like a truck, and pretty intimidating - the type of guy that the rest of the kids didn't mess with. But one day, I was getting harassed by three bigger kids when Hut showed up out of nowhere and let my tormentors know in no uncertain terms that they'd be better served not messing with me. Hut became less menacing that day, and I began looking forward to passing him in the hallways between classes.

In many respects, Boeing Field is a lot like ol' Hut Lee: without knowing much about them, they can seem more than a little intimidating. But with just a little familiarity, you'll soon begin nurturing a relationship that you'll remember for years - or in my case, decades.

King County International Airport — also known as Boeing Field — is one of the busiest primary non-hub airports in the nation. Just four miles south of downtown Seattle, it averages around 200,000 operations (takeoffs and landings) each year. In 2001, it was named by the National Air Transportation Association as one of the "100 Most Needed Airports" in the United States. It is financed by airport tenants' and customers' fees, and receives no general tax revenues.

The airport serves small commercial passenger airlines, cargo carriers, private aircraft owners, helicopters, corporate jets, and military and other aircraft. It is also home to the Boeing Company's 737 aircraft flight-test program, along with other Boeing operations. The Museum of Flight is located there, with its wide variety of aircraft and exhibits showcasing aviation history. It is frequently host to celebrities and dignitaries, including the President of the United States, who prefer Boeing Field because of its proximity to downtown Seattle and other commercial areas.

To take a bit of intimidation out of the Boeing Field 'big airport' stigma, I want to share with you some general concepts and experiences that should help you put your mind at ease. In most all cases, GA (general aviation) traffic will be handled on the "short" runway (13L/31R) that is roughly 3700' in length. This runway is usually not lit from 10pm to 7am. Touch and goes, pattern work and frequent pilot instruction take place on this runway and all traffic flies to the east of this runway – right pattern for 31R and left pattern for 13L. Tower uses 118.3 for all traffic on this runway and defaults to this frequency for GA traffic. Traffic pattern altitude is 1000' MSL and a general piece of advice/noise request is that no turns toward the hill lower than about 700'.

The 'Big Runway' (approx. 10,000 ft) is 13R/31L and is available 24/7. Tower uses 120.6 for this runway and that frequency handles all IFR traffic as well. In the event that it makes sense for traffic flow, by request and/or availability, it is not uncommon for the controllers to put GA aircraft on the big runway. They frequently will accommodate the needs of GA pilots by allowing early turnouts, long landings and high speed taxi approvals when requested. The controllers at BFI are very accommodating and reasonable, just make the request and they will more often than not accommodate. Given the parallel arrangement of the runways, flying an extended centerline heading without encroaching on the airspace of the other runway is critical to maintaining separation. Traffic flow mirrors whatever SEA is doing; this is due to the proximity between BFI and SEA. Occasionally you may find yourself in a sub-optimal crosswind or brisk downwind landing, but it is rarely anything substantial. Should you find yourself in a position where things don't feel right, remember the best option is to perform a go around and keep your head held high that you made a good decision.

For departures and arrivals, I'll share with you some highlights, but it is not meant to replace, but to highlight the procedures handbook available from BFI (linked below) with some context and practical experience. The most restrictive and troublesome approaches are the Vashon/Blake corridor used for arrivals and departures. The major restrictor for this approach/departure is the Class Bravo airspace from SEA that overlays the area. This restricts the traffic pattern altitude for 13R/31L to 800ft MSL in order to provide for a minimal buffer and avoid Class Bravo airspace violations. There are stepped out altitudes that will give you the maximum usable altitude with little margin for error published in the handbook, please commit them to memory and study appropriately for these arrival/departure procedures. When requesting a Blake/Vashon departure or when arriving from the west side, expect to use 13R/31L (the big runway). It is pretty common for controllers to try and have GA traffic switch to the small runway if traffic allows with a mid-field cross wind or extended base (depending on traffic flow). Again, if you have any concerns or want to clarify your understanding while in the air, feel free to talk to the controllers.  They would much rather converse with you and ensure complete understanding that have some sort of incursion or incident. Please review the PDF linked below and pay attention to the altitudes listed; there have been too many issues with crossing into Class Bravo airspace. Once you actually fly the arrivals and departures a time or two, it will all make sense.

When departing or arriving over Elliot Bay (also called the northwest departure), there are some concerns unique to that area as well. Obviously, maintaining proper distance and spacing from the buildings downtown in accordance with FAA regulations is required:

(FAR 91.119 section (b) Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.

Also be aware that a northern reporting point of West Point frequently triggers TCAS warnings for commercial aircraft as they are lined up for their instrument landing and GA aircraft occasionally impinge on their approach path.  When possible, stay to the west side of Elliot Bay while maintaining legal distances to downtown and the waterfront. Familiarize yourself with the reporting points (West Point, Shilshole Marina and the sports stadiums). In most cases, arriving GA aircraft are given a straight in or straight-to-downwind approach (depending on traffic flow) for 13L/31R and told to report abeam the stadiums.  This gives you roughly 3.5 nautical miles to the threshold of the runway for either your approach or joining the downwind.

The bottom line is that if you plan to spend any time at or around Boeing Field, take a little time to do your homework and review the reference page  (including the downloadable PDF) on operating procedures at BFI.  This PDF is updated frequently so I recommend you check back any time you are returning to ensure nothing has been updated. Above all, may you find blue skies, string tail winds and a smile that stays on your face long after you land!

Mar 04
How to setup your FSP account

As hard as it to believe, there are still some folks who have never used Flight Schedule Pro. The following is not meant to be a full-fledged tutorial on advanced usage, but should provide just enough information for you to become dangerous.

  1. Navigate to Flight Schedule Pro. If, like me, you aren't associated with another organization, you'll see a screen similar to the one below. Already belong to other organizations? No sweat. From your default screen/homepage, click the tiny Change link at the top left near your organization's logo. Then, from the Link Other Accounts section, click the Remote Signup link.
  2. Find and select Core Training Industries, Inc. from the drop-down list. Who is Core Training Industries? CTI is one of several independent training organizations that contracts with AFS to offer flight training services. At present, CTI provides us with the use of their FSP account.
Feb 26
An Introduction to Aviator Flight Services

Howdy, and thanks for checking us out! My name is Stephen, and I'm a private pilot. I'm also a student with aspirations of becoming a commercial pilot - and, for that matter, a great many other things as well. For the sake of this blog post, though, I'm one of the folks at Aviator Flight Services, Seattle's newest (and obviously coolest) flight organization, and I'd like to thank you for dropping by.

The core group of the AFS team met during the course of my own flight training a few years back, and because of the horrible experience we all had with the school (or was it a club?!?), we decided to start our own endeavor when they finally went out of business.

At the time, I was a private student with dozen of hours but had not yet soloed. It wasn't that I was a horrible pilot or student (at least, I hope not), but the school/club to which I belonged was absolutely worthless. There were dozens of students, and only three servicable aircraft - many of which I suspected were of questionable airworthiness. Eventually this number shrank to two - and then one. Finally, the day came when there were no airworthy aircraft.

Unhappy but determined to finish my training, I began shopping for a new school with mixed results. I found a number of places that offered late-model planes with glass cockpits (and a correspondingly high pricetag), and I found a few places on the opposite end of the spectrum that gave me access to very low-end planes in which I was terrified to fly. I found a place outside of Boeing Field that seemed like a decent place to fly, but they were so busy that it was difficult to find any availability in their fleet. Sadly, I found that there were only a few middle-of-the-road clubs, but they were located further away than I was willing to travel, and couldn't offer training outside of standard hours.

With that in mind, I spoke to several of my former flight-school cohorts and instructors, and we decided to launch our own little organization at Boeing that would allow like-minded aviation enthusiasts to meet, fly together, and support each other in their various endeavors - be it basic training, formation flying, advanced ratings, or simply kicking each others' butts when we fail to maintain currency. Plus, since I had made a great many mistakes in pursuit of my license, I was pretty confident that I could steer other students clear of the same screw-ups that I had made. And, being a student myself, I was determined to try and help organize instruction and offer services in such a way as to provide all students the opportunity to get their tickets in a reasonable amount of time - while affording them quality instruction by using seasoned, veteran instructors.