Monday, February 28, 2011

Play every crowd like it's Carnegie

Almost ten years ago, I was at a party with some family friends out in Del Rio, Texas. It was early March, and one of those late-season northers had the daytime temperatures down in the 20s. That night, we stood in a barn heated by wood-burning chimneas and listened to this kid named Eric Hanke belt out original songs, one after another.

I was in college when the whole "Texas Music" movement was really taking off, and I'd been into Robert Earl Keen, Pat Green, and Cory Morrow for a while. But this guy was different. He wasn't doing cover songs, and he wasn't trying to write songs about Texas this, Texas that, Shiner Beer, or pickup trucks. He understood the poetry and imagery in the lyrics of guys like Keen, VanZandt, and Nelson much better than so many of these other college acts who claimed them as their influences and progenitors. I became a fan and he became a longtime friend.

Eric just released his second album, Factory Man. His first record, Autumn Blues, was critically well-received but didn't get the airplay that many of us felt it deserved. Eric is due some attention, and Factory Man is the real deal and ought to bring him just that. It has country, it has some funky blues, it has an understated story song, and it even has a piano-driven love song. And, to my ear, it has some radio hits.

Eric is patient, though. Even though he's made several appearances at Gruene Hall, he's also playing small venues, building true believers one listener at a time. Alisa and I saw him Friday at the Bugle Boy in La Grange, Texas (by the way, the Bugle Boy is a cool place if you care about actually hearing the music instead of the drunk, screaming college kids and getting to interact with the artists). The crowd was dissapointingly small, but he got up there and played his guts out. The playing and singing was spot-on, and the story telling between songs reminded me a lot of Robert Earl Keen.

It made me think about what I do, and how few people actually have the guts to go out and do what they know that they were put on this earth to do. Big crowds, small crowds...big airplanes, small airplanes. We lucky few do what we need to do regardless of who's listening, because we know the payoff will come. We play to every crowd like it's Carnegie. Is there any other way? If you don't feel this way about the way you're living your life, there is only one person who can change it.

"Don't you ever give up on your dreams; won't you come and fly away with me?"
-Been Knocked Down by Eric Hanke

For more information: and

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Brief Photo Essay

I've been telling myself that I need to take more pictures at work; I know there will be a point in my career when I want to look back at this stage. So, I brought my camera to work today. These are a few select shots. This is mostly for me. If you're so inclined to peruse, I hope you'll enjoy.

Carswell Joint Reserve Base in Fort Worth (Formerly Carswell AFB)

Hicks Airport, just northwest of Fort Worth. The runway is the surface at a slight angle to the highway. Look at all those hangars!

Somewhere in this picture, there is a red and black Cessna 140 about 1,000 feet below us. He was there when I took the shot, but for the life of my I can't find him now.

I spent the evening instructing in a 1962 Piper Cherokee 150. Second new-to-me aircraft type this month. I dig the old school yokes.

Base-to-final turn over lake Waco. If you're reading the altimeter, it looks like we're high. If you've ever flown a Cherokee, you know we're not. Best glide is +/- 85 mph. It glides like my Ford Explorer would.

What you can't see in this picture is the black widow infestation going on in this hangar. My risks don't always begin and end with the prospect of a sudden chance meeting with the ground ;).

Stand and Fight

The news just came out the the Democractic members of the Indiana House are fleeing the state in order to avoid a vote on a bill that they don't agree with. Really?

Look, I understand that they and their Wisconsin peers are in really unenviable position. There is a piece of legislation, with which you vehemently disagree, drafted by the majority party, on the floor. You know you don't have a chance. There's nothing you can do to stem the tide.

The Republicans in the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate felt the same way on Christmas Eve, 2009, and in March of 2010, respectively. Did they run? No. They argued passionately, with every fiber of their being, and they cast their votes.

Go ahead and flame me if you want to for what you see as a flawed analogy between state houses and the U.S. Congress, but they each level of government has a Constitutionally-binding fiduciary responsibility to its citizens. To turn and run is unseemly, un-American, an irresponsible.

If you don't agree with a bill, stand your ground. Fight it in the chamber where your citizens have given you a voice. Cast your vote, and stand by it. That, friends, is how democracy works.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Family Business

Alisa has been my favorite passenger for almost 10 years now. Today, she officially became one of my students. I've been slipping some ground lessons in with her for a while now---they're actually a great way to pass the drives between Waco/Victoria and Waco/Houston. She's really sharp on her knowledge, and she did well today in the airplane. I'm working with her in our Cessna 150 (see previous blog). She sees it as an approachable airplane, and I see it as a great teacher. Win/win.

I don't think she realized how much she'd actually learned being a passenger. When you're in a small airplane enough, you learn without trying what "straight and level" should look like and what a normal bank angle for a turn looks like. The bridge to getting her to manipulate the controls to achieve those sight pictures was a pretty short one.

They say that if a marriage can survive wedding planning and building a house, it can survive just about anything. I haven't heard that saying applied to flight training, but this will surely be an interesting experiment in marital relations. I'm sure there will be quite a few blog entries dedicated to her progress.

Today, though, I'm proud of her. Alisa is the most accommodating, acquiescing, nicest person I know and I really want for her to have an environment where she'll really be in control. I can't wait to see her grow as a pilot. She's thinking about starting a blog about the experience, and I'll make sure and share the address here if she does.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Is it Good for the Company?

During the Industrial Revolution, working conditions were abhorrent. Seven-day work weeks, extremely low pay, pay in company scrip ("I owe my soul to the company store"), and non-existent child labor standards were the norm. Without a doubt, the organized labor movement changed conditions to the extent that these phenomena are rarely experienced in the United States. Those bumper stickers that say something like, "Unions, the folks that brought you weekends," are not really off-base.

However, we have to ask ourselves an honest question in 2011. Are labor unions still relevant?"

Take Detroit. What really caused the auto industry crash? Is it just that they're not responsible corporate citizens? Is it because they're just that inept at managing their books? Is it just about exeutive bonuses? Or, is there a less populist element to that story?

How about ever-increasing demands by organized labor and ever-increasing difficulty to discipline or terminate employees without union action? Wouldn't that lead to cost inefficiency? Wouldn't that breed a certain complacency in the workforce? It's not unreasonable to think that part of this whole Detroit mess is a tolerance for overpaid labor building an underpeforming product. Here, I'll be blunt about it. Overpaid, overcoddled employees building crappy products contributed to the implosion of their own industry.

Mad at me already? Think I'm way off-base? Toyota makes a high-quality vehicle which holds its value and has a huge worldwide following. It hasn't been easy for them, either, and they requested a bailout from the Japanese government in 2009 (around $3 billion---compared to GM's $52 billion). Despite their troubles, Toyota has managed to (during a worldwide recession) surpass GM as the world's largest automaker. How many of its plants are unionized? The answer: 0. The only union plant was closed in 2009. We don't see any tear-jerker "imported from San Antonio" commercials trying to sell Tacomas, do we?

While I'm thinking about it, listen up Chrysler. I'm not buying your products because I feel sorry for your employees. Let's talk quality, safety, and resale value, then I'll give a rat's.

My first job out of college was as an insurance adjuster. Workers compensation, to be specific. My team's biggest client was the now-closed Goodyear plant in Tyler, Texas. It was a union plant. Part of our process in setting up a new claim was to get wage information on the injured worker (we had to use this to figure out what number to base our temporary disability payout on).

There were literally PhD's working out there because of the wages. We're talking (with overtime) clearing $100K per year, two weeks off at Christmas, to bond rubber to tires. I'm all about a laborer being worthy of his wages, but there's also the concept of "market value." Are the services performed by a factory worker really worth $100,000 per year?

I'm even aware of situations were organized labor is responsible for de-incentivation. For a lot of Air Traffic Controllers, working "Oshkosh," the world's largest airshow, is a really big deal. Historically, any FAA controller was eligible. Now, the National Association of Air Traffic Controllers (NATCA) has an agreement with the FAA that only controllers from the Great Lakes region can work the show. Small example, maybe, but clearly an example of a union taking incentives away from its members. That doesn't seem like good stewardship.

That brings me to a central theme in the debate about unions. Are they still really about representing the worker, or are they seeking to maintain their own power? A basic fact about bureacracy that freshmen political science majors are taught, and normal people know from experience, is this: Once established, a bureacracy's primary objective is to further itself. Could it be that unions, fully cognizant that their social necessity is dwindling, make calculated moves to amass power and perpetuate themselves?

What's going on in Wisconsin isn't some kind of organic populist uprising. It's a union orchestration. If the union there is interested in actually helping its employees, having them walk off the job en masse isn't the most effective way of doing it. The union wants to demonstrate its power. It wants to perpetuate itself. It wants to stay alive. This is not about the teachers. It's about the union. I dont' know how it could be any more obvious.

It's interesting that the most venemous unions out there are the ones representing pubic sector employees. Whether you agree that it's fair to target them or not, you have to understand a few things. Public sector employees work in the wealth-spending world, not in the wealth-generation world. For a country to survive, it must generate wealth. Ask the Soviets.

When a big chuck of the public can't pay the bills, it seems a little less reasonable for public employees to continue to expect sweetheart benefits packages. In the case of Wisconsin, public employees are still being asked in the new measures to contribute less to their pensions and benefits than the average private sector employee does. Continuing to capitulate to union demands is a pretty stupid way for a state, or a country, to go even more broke.

To be sure, there are industries where unions do still hold some relevance. The Air Line Pilots Association just closed negotiations on a new salary contract to get pilots at several regional airlines closer to a reasonable level. (These are not the "rich" pilots---regional pilots make between $20 and $45k per year. They're responsible for 30-50 lives at a time, but they still have less benefits than my PhD running the tire machine for Goodyear). Did they walk off the job to accomplish this? Nope. They negotiated. (ALPA's demands are not always good for the companies, either...US airlines are not exactly a juggernaut of positive financial activity).

However, I think the Wisconsin governor realizes what we all need to realize. The era of Upton Sinclair and The Jungle is long over in the United States. We can't give organized labor carte blanche power or capitulate to their demands as a matter of policy. Cost-benefit analyses are more vital now than ever.

After all, once you milk your employer dry with your demands, it's going to suck a whole lot worse to not have a job than to not get everything you want. If you like cashing your paychecks, it turns out it may be a good idea to ask the question so ingeniusly lampooned in the movie Office Space: "Is it good for the company?" Ask Detroit.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

With Friends Like This...

...Well, you know the rest of that old saying. Today's blog is sort of a continuation of yesterday's topic. If you recall, we were talking about a general lack of professionalism and competency in aviation which I believe can be traced in many instances back to initial training. Let's look at an oft-overlooked example of a high-profile screwup.

The "Ally"

Senator James Inhofe is back in the news because the FAA's "punishment" for a recent indiscretion has been made public. In case you're curious, he got slapped on the wrist.

Back in October, Senator Inhofe landed his twin engine Cessna, three passengers on board, on a closed runway in Port Isabel, Texas. There were construction vehicles and personnel on the runway, and it was marked as "closed" by large yellow X's as is customary.

The fact that the runway was closed was also available public through a NOTAM (notice to airmen). The Federal Aviation Regulation codified as 14 CFR 91.103 indicates that pilots must become familiar with applicable NOTAMS before flying. This would especially apply to an airport with which one is not familiar.

Senator Inhofe's reaction to all this was downright scary. "It's unfortunate, I'm sorry, but I'm not really concerned about it." And regarding checking NOTAMS, he said "people who fly a lot just don't do it."

The Policymaker

One has to wonder what shortcomings in his training may have made Inhofe think that this just wasn't much of a big deal. We also teach pilots to try and identify and correct hazardous attitudes in themselves; he certainly failed at this task. In doing so, he jeopardized the lives of his passengers and the construction personnel. He jeopardized even more, though.

As a Senator who is known to be very pro-aviation, he's given a black eye to the very field of endeavor which he fights so hard in the halls of Congress to protect and further. His attitude makes us all look like idiots and sours public opinion on pilots (if this U.S. Senator is such a cowboy, they must all be that way). When you defame a cause that you work for years to support, you're jeopardizing your own body of work. Does he not realize this?

Senator Inhofe is also a member of the very body that is considering (the Senate hasn't voted on the law yet) new regulations upon a class of professionals (airline pilots) in order to improve safety and professionalism. If he's against it, he's sure a posterchild for lack of pilot professionalism. And if he votes for it, I've got a kettle I'll introduce him to. Either way, the irony is ridiculously inescapable.

With Friends Like This...

With friends like this, who needs enemies? Keep your nose clean, Senator Inhofe. We need aviation voices in Congress who can be taken seriously.

Monday, February 14, 2011

1500 and the Real Problem

I don't just fly with primary students. When you work for a Part 61 flight school, you fly with people who have trained with other instructors; some of them come to you for advanced ratings, some come to you for flight reviews, and some just come to you for some proficiency flying. (Unfortunately, the people who really need proficiency flying aren't the ones engaging flight instructors for the task, but that's a topic for another blog entry).

I've noticed a few trends. People aren't taught basic airmanship anymore. They can't use the rudder pedals very effectively. They have problems communicating on the radio. They depend upon automation rather than managing it as a cockpit tool. I've even flown with an individual recently who was never taught how to plot a cross-country flight on an aviation sectional chart (map).

These people didn't seek lackluster training on purpose; they're well-meaning pilots who gracefully accept and integrate critiques. And, I'm not saying that I am perfect at teaching those competencies, but I do commit myself every day to get better and better at presenting and reinforcing behavior that builds them in my students. Finally, I'm not laying all the blame at the instructors' feet; Designated Pilot Examiners are supposed to be the FAA's critical eye and sometimes get way too cozy with flight schools. Some of them are even on flight school payrolls, and this apparently doesn't raise too many eyebrows.

These problems (and to be sure, plenty of others) are beginning to be reflected widely in the aviation industry.

A Solution Looking for a Problem

The title of today's blog is 1500, and that's how many hours that the U.S. Congress wants (at a minimum) the FAA to begin requiring all airline new-hires to have in their logbooks. It's in the name of your safety, they say, and they cite the 2009 Colgan accident in Buffalo as the tipping point. In fact, popular public opinion holds that regional airline pilots are "low-time" and "inexperienced."

Let's talk hours: Does anybody know how many the flight crew on Colgan 3407 had? Raise your hand.

Captain Renslow had 3,379. First Officer Shaw had 2,244. You read that correctly.

According to the NTSB, the Colgan accident was the result of a lot of factors: lack of professionalism in the cockpit, degraded situational awareness, fatigue, improper stall recovery, and several other factors. What the Colgan accident was not the result of was low flight hours.

What problem are we really fixing?


Experience as a pilot and time spent in the airplane are not always directly correlated. A recent study featured in Aero Safety World magazine found that a sample of 30 experienced airline pilots could not peform several basic instrument flying tasks, without automation, to the standards of the pilot certificate they hold (Airline Transport Pilot). We're talking been there, done that grey hairs.

There's your automation dependency right there. But wait, there's more.

The Flight Instructor Factor

Being a Certified Flight Instructor is a great way to build experience as well as build flight time, but you have to have the right attitude in order to benefit from it. This is a job that you have to approach as a learner...if you're not actively reflecting on what you're learning while you work with students, it's all just empty flight time.

"Okay," you say," if time as an instructor is so great for your piloting abilities, then making people instruct till they have 1500 hours will be great for aviation safety and pilot experience."

I wish it were that simple. I see the potential some good stuff and some bad stuff coming out of this. You'll see some conflicting and somewhat mutually-exclusive arguments here.

Good first:

1. When airlines were snapping up pilots who had between 250-500 hours, it was a buyer's market and lower pay was tolerated. One school of thought suspects that starting pay for brand new First Officers is going to have to begin an upward creep. Otherwise, we'll never be able to attract the kind of person who'll put up with this much to attain a career goal, and the system will continue to degrade.

2. Instructors who embrace the instructor-as-learner approach I talked about will in fact be more qualified when they reach the airlines.

3. Warm fuzzies: The general public will feel great that First Officer So-and-So isn't fresh off of his Multi-Commercial checkride.

Bad stuff:

1. The grass is always greener. Quality of flight instruction, which already sucks way too often, will go downhill even further due to bored, frustrated CFI's having to bide their time until they get the call. You have to be engaged in this job to be good at it. If quality of instruction continues its downward spiral, the industry continues to crumble.

2. The regional carriers continue to pay pilots poorly, because they're regional carriers and that's what they do, and they can still find a guy who'll take your place. So First Officer So-and-So has a moutain of debt that he can't pay and is constantly stressed about it, and ends up leaving aviation. The pilot shortage becomes more acute and the industry continues to crumble.

(Or, he leaves aviation to become a reality TV star and pick the trashiest possible woman on The Bachelor).

3. Policymakers continue to focus on hours instead of qualitative experience, and these "experienced" kid wonders continue to make stupid mistakes and kill people.

So We're Damned if We Do, Damned if We Don't?

Okay, so either way the effects of the new law are neutral at best, problematic at worst. Are we just screwed?

No. The problem can begin to be addressed, quite effectively, at my level of the industry. And organizations ranging from AOPA to the National Association of Flight Instructors and the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators are doing lots of research, focus groups, and thinking on this right now.

Those competencies I mentioned at the beginning of this blog entry must be instilled from Hour #1 of flight training by instructors who understand that their first few hours with a primary student can make or break careers and lives. Certificate mills with on-staff Pilot Examiners aren't going to cut it any more.

Examiners must hold instructors accountable for shortcomings in their teaching, and instructors must build relationships with Examiners in order to establish that respectful, effective feedback loop. We might want to also examine the ethics of the Examiner-on-Staff model as well, lucrative though it may be.

We have to find ways to attract and retain career flight instructors. Flight school owners are going to have to suck it up and take smaller cuts out of hourly instruction rates. They'll have to spend some money to improve physical conditions, and incentivize instructors who find innovative ways to teach procedures or increase quality of training. I'm fortunate to have worked for a couple of bosses who actually get this, and the results are beginning to show.

What's at Stake?

The entirety of the world's civil aviation infrastructure is built on American flight schools, and while the "experts" in Washington try to fix a problem they don't understand, we must get ahead and start pulling our weight. That's not something an act of Congress can do.

On Co-pilots

My average work week these days is 60-70 hours. I'm not at all complaining, just stating a fact. That's what it takes to keep a small flight school running and keep all the customers taken care of. And unfortunately, there's no way of prettying up the fact that as my career progresses, I'll spend even less time at home.

Back in 2004, Alisa married an insurance adjuster who was home every night. Then, that changed to traveling university recruiter, and now finally, a professional pilot. Some people might call that unstable, but Alisa knows the truth: With me, it's been a constant evolution, each step strangely contributing to the next. I've finally re-invented myself into what I've really wanted to be since I was a little kid, and it's actually working out. Who can say that they really get to do that?

More importantly, and more to my point today, who can say that they have a co-pilot who comes along, willingly, on that wild of a ride? This has not been an uneventful journey. At times, it has been expensive, stressful, and yes, overwhelmingly joyful.

Through it all, Alisa has been there. She knew back in May of 2004 what we all know (or should all admit): there is nothing certain about the future. But she also knew she was marrying a guy who wasn't going to stop trying until he got it right. And I love her for her patience, steadfast support, and grace as I've worked to make it right for us.

Here's to co-pilots. I have the world's best, and I try every day to earn it. Happy Valentine's day, sweetheart.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Aviation Security in Perspective

Fourth Amendment? What Fourth Amendment?

The TSA continues its foray into aviation with an announcement this week that it will fund a research project to create a backscatter scanner (the kind they use on airline passengers now) intended to scan General Aviation airplanes. That sounds like yet another violation of the Fourth Amendment to me. I know what your argument is: "But Aaron, it's already been established that airports are Fourth Amendment-Free zones."

My response: "Really? Has that been tested specifically in the Supreme Court?" Fear not. Several lawsuits are working their way through the system that will allow just that to happen.

Let's Get Practical

Case law aside, let's look at some practical matters. People who aren't involved in aviation are all-too-willing to regulate airplanes because "it's worth it for safety." Even at the price of their rights. What would people say if there were simliar restrictions on automobile travel?

"But airplanes are much more dangerous than cars." Don't we always assume that the things we don't understand are dangerous?

Let's look at that argument, and compare the security risks that land-based automobiles present.

1. Tracking. It's true that General Aviation aircraft are not required to file flight plans. But the idea that they could be "practically anywhere" is a little misguided. Temporary Flight Restrictions, Prohibited Areas, and controlled airpspace are created for a reason. And, when's the last time you filed a driving plan in your car? We don't know who you are or where you are. That sounds scary to me, and it gives you a great opportunity to slip under the radar and do damage. It's happened before.

2. Mass. The average light General Aviation aircraft has a maximum weight of between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds. According to the New York Times, the 2003 average car/light duty truck weight in the U.S. was 4,021 pounds. Given an average top speed of 120-160 mph, and a virtually unlimited payload (not the case with aircraft), that's some serious destructive potential. What would have happened to the IRS building in Austin if the attack had been made with an explosive-laden Ford Expedition?

3. Access. Even the "least secure" General Aviation airports have a suspicious eye cast over them by law enforcement. More and more are being fenced with coded gates, and the pilot community is pretty vigilant for random outsiders. How many of those 4,021 pound cars were stolen last year? Heck, how many were stolen yesterday? Do we know their whereabouts? Again, pretty scary.

4. Track Record. This is a biggie. Since airplanes were used on 9/11, surely they'll be used again. That's the rationale, anyway, and aviation has borne the brunt of security measures as a result. What about Oklahoma City? What about the two recent plots in Dallas and New York City? All involved automobiles. Where are the calls to restrict their passengers, payload, access, and routes?

5. Border Security. It's not Politically Correct, but I could care less. Until our borders are secure, no amount of security in any other arena will protect us. Bottom line. Terrorists are not stupid, and our borders offer a path of least resistance. Why screw with flying anymore?

Do you see a pattern here? We can go around and around and make the argument that just about anything is a security threat if we want to. Aviation has made a convenient whipping boy because we're all willing to tolerate it and many of us are willing to be rused into thinking that the measures are effective.

It's easy to say that security is worth giving up a few of your rights, but how are are you willing to go? Since automobiles clearly have at least as much destructive potential as aircraft, are you willing to give up your Fourth Amendment rights in your daily life?

"Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both."
---Benjamin Franklin

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Rediscovering an old friend

Cramped. Slow. Lethargic. Those are all things you're likely to hear when you ask people their opinions about the lowly Cessna 150. My memories from completing my flight training in the 150 weren't completely fond, either. Particularly so is the memory of my private pilot checkride: a Cessna 150 on an August day with a 300 pound Designated Pilot Examiner is just not a fun place to be. I learned that day that fat sweats. Trust me. I digress...

However, I've had an opportunity to rediscover the 150 as a training ariplane recently. My new flight school acquired N22959, a low time (really---less than 2,000 hours. "Low time" for a 150 usually means somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 hours.) 1968 150. She's pretty outside and inside, well-rigged, and as it turns out, is an excellent teacher.

The vast majority of my teaching to this point has been in 172's. Skyhawks are nice, docile airplanes, but compared to 150's, their stalls are non-existent, they land themselves, and are overly forgiving of sloppy rudder work. It has been entertaining to watch my 172 graduates strap into the 150 and find to their surprise that some airplanes DO require coordination in a stall and some airplanes MUST be flared in order to land properly. Maybe all those dutch rolls their evil instructor makes them do actually serve a purpose :).

This little bird has a way of putting a magnifying glass on those stick and rudder skills that I love to teach in a manner second only to what the Cub could do. (Unfortunately, I can't just teach 'em all in taildraggers).

Maybe I'm just infatuated with it due to the pure bliss of flying something different and the crush will fade, but for now I really love teaching in this airplane. Probably more than in the 172. And that's saying something for a tall-ish dude who weighs 230 pounds. In a way, I kind of feel like I've "arrived" as an instructor since I'm doing some teaching in the favored trainer of the generation previous to mine. I usually identify with old stuff and old people better anyway.

Give the Cessna 150 a little love. There's a reason it has been regarded as a great teacher all these years, and in this era of flashy light sports and girly-birds like the Diamond DA-20, it's still worthy of your consideration as a training platform. And, they're cheap to acquire and cheap to rent.

If you're a Skyhawk baby like so many of my students are, go get checked out in one. Your stick and rudder skills will thank you.

Post Script: I once saw a cowbird chasing a Diamond DA-20, yelling, "Mama! Mama!"