John’s blog

When the margins get thin

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Richard Collins once summed up risk management, a subject that now elicits PhD-level jargon, in four simple words: “it’s all about margins.” Shave the margins too close and you’re one bit of bad luck away from an accident. The importance of those margins was driven home for me on a recent flight in a Pilatus PC-12, when I allowed schedule pressure to reduce them just a little too much, but not in the usual way.

3 questions to ask about weather reports

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When you consider the big picture, you’re really creating a weather hypothesis – an overarching narrative that ties together the various weather reports. Not all weather reports are developed the same way, and not all deserve equal attention. Here are three questions to consider when comparing different weather products.

Silicon Valley discovers aviation – but for how long?

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You have to pay close attention these days to keep up with all the breathless news about “flying cars” and “disruptive aerial vehicles.” The great and the good from the technology world have fallen in love with aviation lately, and their various startup companies have been launching aviation projects at an unprecedented rate in 2017. Do any of them have a chance? Does it matter?

The death knell for the vacuum pump?

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This year’s Sun ‘n Fun Fly-in didn’t have any flashy new product introductions – no $50,000 LSAs or supersonic jets from unknown startups – but there may have been a more important trend unfolding. The vacuum-driven gyro may finally be on the way out. Thank goodness.

The scan: why instrument flying is an art, not a science

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Ask a native English speaker what their strategy is for writing a sentence and you’ll probably get a blank stare. After all, most of us don’t read a textbook and come up with a methodical approach to grammar before we write an email. So why do we insist on this same robotic approach when teaching instrument flying?

Eight life lessons you learn as a pilot

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Becoming a pilot changes who you are, even if you don’t realize it at first. Sure, there are the practical lessons about math, physics, and engineering you don’t encounter in everyday life. But as a recent trip through my logbook proved, aviation offers courses in the humanities as well as the hard sciences.

Two cheers for the FAA: why recent reforms should be welcomed

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Everyone likes to complain about the Federal Aviation Administration, and often it’s richly deserved. But for an open-minded pilot who’s willing to ignore the typical pilot talk, there are some encouraging developments in aviation policy right now. If you can find it in your heart, the folks in Washington might even deserve our thanks.

What the artificial intelligence boom means for aviation

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is the hot technology of 2016, finding its way into research papers and cocktail party conversations alike. As usual, most talk is either hopelessly optimistic or relentlessly negative (you know a trend is mainstream when you start reading headlines like, “Is fashion ready for the AI revolution?”). Cut through all the hype, though, and pilots can find a lot of reasons to be enthusiastic about AI.

The end of FAA charts as we know them?

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The summer of 2016 may be viewed as the beginning of the end of standard FAA charts. It sounds foolish to make such a bold prediction, but there are some very good reasons to believe a decade-long trend away from traditional sectionals and approach plates has accelerated recently. Technology plays a significant role, but so do changes by the FAA.

What controversy? 5 debates new pilots don’t understand

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Pilots love a good debate. This may be the only thing that isn’t controversial in aviation. Enthusiasm for debates doesn’t necessarily make aviation unique; after all, sports fans are famous for their spirited arguments too. What is different is our need to debate the same issues, year after year, sometimes decades after the facts are settled. Two recent examples are particularly long-running – to the point of being frustrating.

How to fly safely when you’re low and slow

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You don’t have to fly IFR at 10,000 feet to travel efficiently by general aviation. I was reminded of this fact after logging 15 enjoyable hours over the past month – all at 500 feet and 100 knots in VFR-only aircraft. That doesn’t mean it was boring. Over the course of two long trips, I had a few speed bumps, and in the process I re-learned some important lessons about weather, decision-making and technology.

The pilot brotherhood – only as good as your next action

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I think we get carried away with this brotherhood talk. Sure, pilots can be accepting and caring folks, and the common bond of aviation often does bring wildly different people together. That hardly means such behavior is guaranteed, though. Pilots are still human beings who often bring their own powerful emotions, biases and agendas to any situation.

To go or not to go? That is the (wrong) question

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We falsely view most aviation decisions as binary. The language of decision-making subtly reinforces this, with exhortations to “keep it simple” or “be confident.” What we end up with is a hopelessly unrealistic set of answers: yes or no, black or white. We should know better. Flying is all about subtle clues, 50/50 decisions and shades of gray.

General aviation in Europe is both inspiring and frightening

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For a crass American, AERO is a very civilized show, held in a beautiful convention center with great coffee and lively beer gardens. Oshkosh this isn’t. Beyond these mundane differences, though, the show offers a fascinating lesson for US pilots. If all you’ve heard is how awful things are for private pilots in Europe, let me offer a more complete – although not entirely rosy – portrait.

Why you should care about the new Part 23 proposal

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There has been a lot of talk lately (perhaps too much?) about aviation issues in Washington: Air Traffic Control privatization, the third class medical, and user fees to name just three. Somewhat obscured by these Capitol Hill battles is a more complicated but also arguably more important legislative issue: aircraft certification reform.

Air Facts turns five!

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This magazine was founded in 1938 by Leighton Collins to advocate for “facts – knowledge – safety.” Since then, its pages have been filled by some of aviation’s greatest writers, including Richard Collins, Wolfgang Langewiesche, Bob Buck and Richard Bach. Given that rich history, it may seem odd to celebrate a fifth birthday, but Air Facts in its current form was relaunched five years ago, in March 2011.

We’re thinking about electric airplanes all wrong

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Bill Gates has famously said, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.” Thus we overhyped the internet in 2000, but failed to recognize how completely it would change life by 2010. The same could be said for electric aircraft, an emerging technology that seems to have been on the “coming soon” list for decades.

More than just a gadget – how the iPad is making flying safer

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For all their cynicism, pilots have adopted tablets and apps like eager teenagers. Just five years ago, no one had ever heard of an “Electronic Flight Bag app.” Today, the majority of general aviation pilots – and a whole bunch of airline and military pilots too – are flying with one. How many other tools are used by Air Force tanker pilots and J-3 Cub drivers alike?