El Niño Indeed!

From The South Ramp --Hank Bruckner
Article from the March 2005 edition of the GACH newsletter

    El Niño Indeed!
    This winter was supposed to be a “drier El Niño winter” according to the NWS, last year.  I must have been asleep or daydreaming when the “drier” part happened.  One measure, albeit unscientific, is that since the latter part of 2003, Moloka'i has been completely green.  Typically, the western half of the island turns brown by mid-summer, if not earlier.  That never occurred last year, and I’m beginning to wonder about this year, too.  The passage of a shear line/front/trough every couple of days so typical of last winter and this one—and in fact, much of 2004—is wearing a little thin.  I realize that I will find little sympathy from most frozen, slushed-out Mainlanders, but then again, that’s one of the reasons I don’t live on the Mainland.  I’m ready for spring.

    Challenging flying, punctuated by downright cancellation has been the rule this season.  The NWS has been fairly accurate in predicting the arrival of major systems, but much less so in forecasting their movement down the chain.   It makes a huge difference whether a front stalls near Kaua'i or makes it to the Big Island, or, as has happened fairly often, it makes it to the Ka’iwi Channel and Moloka'i and then just sits until it slowly dissipates or is joined by the next one down the pike.

    When the weather is like this, the NEXRAD (WSR-88D) weather radar system becomes a key ingredient in the go/no go decision process.  There are four radars in the Hawai'i system: Kaua'i (near Port Allen), Moloka'i (near the VOR), Mount Kohala on the Big Island, and over on the Hilo side.  These four units provide general coverage over the major islands in the chain.  However, when a key unit, such as the Moloka'i radar is out of service, if even for a little while, I feel partially blinded.  Even with all units operating, there is a major gap in coverage over the northern Kaua'i Channel, Lihue and northern Kaua'i.  The gap affects flights into Lihue and Princeville, but also hides weather systems approaching from the northwest as they so often do. Siting another radar somewhere near Kaena Point, O’ahu would fill that gap nicely.  Siting it on the high ground near Kahuku, O’ahu, would also provide useful backup to the Moloka'i radar.

    As good as NEXRAD is, however, there are some things that only your Mark I eyeballs can tell you.  The radar depiction is color coded, based on the strength of the echoes.  Light blue is a weak echo and generally corresponds to a lesser amount of moisture.  As you move through green and yellow to red, you can expect heavier precipitation. But, the radar won’t give you the cloud bottoms or tops and you cannot directly derive visibility from the depiction.  I have seen days when a light blue return corresponded to misty clouds right down to the surface, with drastically reduced visibility.  I’ve also seen days, such as during the big front/trough of the first week of February, when the same light blue corresponded to ceilings above 3,000’ with unlimited visibility below.

    NEXRAD is an extremely useful tool, and to get the most out of it, I’d recommend you read about the various operating modes and scans at http://weather.noaa.gov/radar/radinfo/radinfo.html.

    When flying around in the rain, reported visibility can be misleading and downright deceiving.  We all know that a visibility of three miles or more is considered VFR.  It is useful to realize, though, that the visibility reported by a stationary ground observer may look very different to a pilot especially if it is raining.  The four miles visibility in moderate rain reported by tower may look like less than 6 feet when that same rain is beating against your windshield.  A localized shower over the field that is producing three or four miles visibility on the ground can turn to instant zero in the air at the most inopportune time—when you’re on short final.  When planning that flight, find out just what is affecting visibility. Haze or smoke or mist will probably look the same on the ground or in the air. If it’s raining, actual visibility out the windshield is very likely to be a lot less than what is reported and that could color your decision to go or not.  Short final, configured to land, close to the ground, surrounded by rising terrain and obstructions, and operating under VFR is no time to have near-zero visibility.  Don’t ask me how I know.

    FSS Outsourcing
    In a move that could have far-reaching consequences, Lockheed-Martin was announced as the winner of the contract to operate the Flight Service Station system for the FAA.  If you hadn’t heard, the FAA is going to contract out the FSS system in order to save money.  It’s expensive to operate the 58 Flight Service Stations spread across our country.  Under the new scheme, significant consolidation will occur:  the 58 will become 20 (Alaska is exempted).  Hawai'i is to retain the FSS here. 

    What will change?  Good question. The name becomes FS21, at least informally.  Effective 1 October, FSS personnel will be Lockheed-Martin employees, rather than federal employees.  Service, however, is supposed to actually improve due to extensive modernization of the entire system.  A modern network with a common database accessible to all specialists will connect the 20 remaining stations. Under the contract, pilots are going to get a guarantee that a live briefer will answer their phone calls within 20 seconds and acknowledge their radio calls within five seconds. Flight plans will be filed within three minutes.  Eventually, if you choose not to have a telephone briefing, you will be able to get an interactive briefing on your computer or PDA, and even have NOTAMS and weather alerts sent to you as conditions warrant. Frequencies and telephone numbers won’t change, so you as pilot won’t have to do anything differently.  Oh, yeah, and there won’t be any fees imposed.

    I have to wonder whether local expertise will be lost at some locations as the consolidation proceeds.  The plan does address this by indicating that briefers will be trained to specific geographic areas, ensuring pilots will still have access to specialized knowledge of local conditions.  Though interrelated, knowledge and experience are not one and the same.  One can acquire knowledge at an accelerated pace (well, some of us can, anyway), but experience has a pace of its own.  In some areas of the country, that experience, or lack of it, can have an impact on safety.

    AOPA has been at the forefront in shaping the deal so that there would be no fees and no degradation of service, and the organization is sounding very positive. I hope their optimism is well founded.  My experience is that plans and reality can be divergent in a manner that is directly proportional to the size and scope of the plan. Unforeseen obstacles and challenges pop up along the way, focus shifts, objectives are redefined and the vision is blurred by politics.  Stuff happens.     I’ve heard a certain amount of skepticism from some FSS people and I think it is well placed. It’s a tall order: save a half-billion dollars a year by consolidating facilities and restructuring using fewer people, while at the same time improving service and not charging user fees. I do have confidence, however, that aviation organizations, and AOPA in particular, will keep a close watch on FS21 and will be quick to point out any failures to live up to the contract.  I also have confidence that the professional specialists at the Honolulu Automated Flight Service Station will continue to do their utmost on all our behalf, regardless who signs their paychecks.

    Cool School
    The days are long gone when everyone stopped what they were doing or saying to watch an airplane pass overhead, and kids would hang out at the nearest airfield in hopes of catching a ride or even just watch planes take off and land, dreaming of the day when they, too, would taste the freedom of flight.  A number of things have combined to dim the allure of flight—widely publicized accidents, pay disputes, bankruptcies, costs, and, of course, the horrific aftermath of 9/11.  Even the maturity of the industry is to blame, to some degree.  As air travel became safer and widely available, it became mundane.  The now-leading manufacturer of transport category aircraft is called Airbus.  How exciting is that?  Beyond mundane, of course, air travel has now become drudgery and an ordeal.  Long lines, delays, flight cancellations, comfortless seating, inedible food have all diluted the desire to fly.  Who dreams of becoming a bus driver? (Not that there’s anything wrong with being a bus driver, of course.)

    It is against this bleak background that a beacon of hope pierces the murk.  Where is the next generation of pilots going to come from?  Some will likely come from Waialua High School, thanks to John Gleeson and his Waialua Academy of Aeronautics.  This program, unique in the state, gives youngsters at Waialua H.S. the chance to sample the wonderful world of aeronautics first hand, including glider flights and sim rides.  John has long sought to excite young folks about all things aviation, and this program looks like a resounding success.
    Those of us who are blessed enough to be a part of aviation have an obligation to keep the dream alive by passing it on to the next generation and by being an example to those who will follow.  John Gleeson has done all that and more, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude.

 Solo Circumnavigation
    At approximately 0952 Hawai’i time on March 3rd, Steve Fossett landed the GlobalFlyer at Salina, Kansas, following a solo, unrefueled flight around the world, sixty-seven hours, two minutes and thirty-eight seconds after he took off.  Actually, he broke three records: speed around the world without stopping or refueling, distance over a closed circuit without landing, and distance without landing.  There were some tense moments when it appeared he was short some 2,600 pounds of fuel—out of the 18,100 on board when he took off, and as he approached Hawai'i he had to make the decision whether or not to continue.  Not a few folks gathered at HNL just in case he had to land here!  Tailwinds blew, the decision was made to press on, and the rest, as they say, is history.

    The flight is a monument to Steve, of course, who now holds something like 121 aviation records.  It’s also yet another example of the seemingly limitless genius of Burt Rutan.  An absolute marvel of efficiency, the GlobalFlyer is at once unlike anything else Rutan has designed, and yet very reminiscent of other designs springing from his incredible mind. 

The Flyer, like so many of Rutan’s designs, was built to a single purpose—fly non-stop around the world on one tank of gas (well, 13 tanks actually).  Advanced aerodynamics and carbon fiber, graphite, epoxy construction made the aircraft so slick it needed drag chutes to descend for landing.  Devoid of any anti-ice or de-ice, it also needed good weather and relatively smooth air, especially early in the flight when the fuel load was so high (initially over 80% of the gross weight was fuel).  Composites were used wherever they would make sense, saving weight.  In fact, there is very little metal in the aircraft at all—primarily the engine mounts and the landing gear. The gear, built at Scaled Composites, doesn’t cycle in the normal sense.  It can be retracted by compressed air (a one-shot deal) and then free-falls to extend. This, too, saves a lot of weight.

Like other Rutan projects, a team of dedicated and talented folks made it all happen, translating his design into an actual flying creation, designing and building the various structures and systems, integrating them, testing them, flight-planning.  He obviously knows how to attract the best and brightest. 
The fact that Fossett and his friends have very deep pockets in no way diminishes the importance of this flight.  While his success depended on the skilled and efforts of a group of dedicated people, and he was always in communications with his support team, he was nonetheless the sole occupant of that airplane, for sixty-seven hours.  Well done!

   Say Goodbye to the NDB (well, almost
    When the Non-Directional Beacon first came on line, pilots were overjoyed.  They could simply follow a needle (more or less) to or from a station in bad weather and get to their destination, replacing the old A/N system in which the pilot (or navigator) listened to the Morse code tone for N or A in the headset, to determine which side of the radio course the plane was on. When you heard a steady tone—the combination of the A in one ear and the N in the other—you were on course (again, more or less).  The NDB was a huge jump in capability. Better, but far from perfect. 

    The system is imprecise, to say the least, and subject to static and false indications.  The aircraft receiver, known as the Airborne Direction Finder (ADF) tends to point to static from lightning as well as to NDBs), and tracking an NDB course requires some thought and skill.  The ADF receiver/antenna system is also relatively heavy and fairly complex. The system’s demise was first predicted when the oh-so-much-better VOR system was born, lo those many years ago, and yet it soldiers on.  In some parts of the world the NDB is still the primary navigation system available. In the U.S., where there are so many other, more capable navaids, the lowly ADF has often been relegated to a sometimes-used AM radio receiver.  Few aircraft are being fitted with new ADF systems, and most of the older ones aren’t worth repairing when they finally give up the ghost.  With the advent of GPS navigation and approaches, the bell again tolls for the NDB.

    The FAA has drawn up a list of some 497 Non-Directional Beacon (NDB) approaches it wants to cancel in order to focus resources on satellite-based navigation systems, like GPS WAAS.  The approaches are all to runways served by other instrument procedures. Two of the approaches on the list are here in Hawai'i –the NDB Rwy 8L at HNL and the NDB Rwy 20 at OGG. 

    Airport managers across the country were asked to comment on the proposed closures and I indicated to Jim Pratt here at HNL that canceling the NDB Rwy 8L approach would not have a huge impact on the flying community; however, the NDB it is predicated on—EWABE, also serves as the outer marker for HNL 8L, is the Initial Approach Fix for the Wheeler NDB-A approach, and is the primary navaid for the NDB Rwy 4R approach to Kalaeloa. So while canceling that particular approach wouldn’t hurt too much, removing the EWABE NDB itself would leave us without any usable NDB approach for training, and as long as there are NDB approaches pilots need to be able to use them. 

    Pilots have the opportunity to comment to the FAA on which approaches they’d like to keep. Comments are due April 4. You can e-mail your comments to debra.e.sullivan@faa.gov. AOPA asks that you also send a copy to ndb@aopa.org.

     Burt Rutan has announced that the Tier One combo—the White Knight aircraft and the SpaceShipOne space plane—will be at Oshkosh this year. This will be its only public appearance and that’s as close to a “must go see” as I can think of!  Burt and his first astronaut, Mike Melvill will be there and no doubt speak at a Forum or two.  New and different air show acts are also on tap.  AirVenture is July 25-31 this year, and it promises to be a great one.

    Courage means different things to different people.  I tend to think of an act as courageous if it is performed in spite of perceived danger or risk (of course, some would call that foolhardy rather than courageous).  In order to become a flight instructor, a pilot must have logged ground and flight training in the infamous spin. Many pilots approach this task with a modicum of apprehension, and others feel pure dread.  And then, others eagerly await the opportunity to make the world revolve, relishing every moment.  In most cases, the fear and apprehension abates after the first spin demo, but for some it only reinforces their extreme distaste for the maneuver.

    I’ve been fortunate to have spin trained and signed off many CFI applicants and have encountered all types.  Not too long ago, I flew with a pilot who had an almost paralyzing fear of spins.  He had forewarned me, and the first spin demo brought out every indication of near panic.   When I do spin certifications, we’ll do several spins, both incipient and fully developed, left and right, including a spin, which I enter in a relatively unorthodox way and have the student recover.  He knew he had to get through this, and he stared his demon in the eye and steeled himself to the ordeal and did very well.  That’s courage.

Be careful out there.

Hank’s ratings:
Byron Fujimoto   CFI Spins
Koani Lau            CFI Spins
Russell Oyama     CFI Spins
Michael Richards  CFI Spins
Benoit Weber       CFI Spins