Aviator or Pilot?

Posted on February 8, 2012 by Mac


My boss, EAA president and CEO Rod Hightower, likes the word aviator. And also aviate. I am pleased that Rod thinks of me as an aviator. But, as usual, some have groused about use of the title aviator and would rather think of themselves strictly as pilots.

Actually, pilot is an older title and predated aviation by many, many years. In its most common application, pilot is and remains the title of a person who guides a ship through the tricky conditions of a harbor. To this day all ships above a certain size are required to take on a pilot who has the local knowledge of the harbor that the ship’s captain couldn’t possibly have.

The pilot actually takes over responsibility for guiding the ship into the harbor and to the dock. When a ship sails a pilot is onboard to navigate it safely back out to open water.

A pilot can also be a device to show the way in other endeavors. For example, many airplane kits have pilot holes drilled in components. When the pilot holes are lined up the components are correctly in place and the remaining holes can be drilled and fasteners attached.

In the late 1800s France was the hotbed of aviation and people were flying all sorts of lighter than air machines. A descriptive term for the people who operated these aircraft was needed so aviator, from the French aviateur, was coined. Pilots were guiding ships into and out of harbors, but aviators were operating aircraft.

Aviator was commonly used even after the Wright brothers and others developed airplanes. Flying was a unique activity, to say the least, and it must have made sense to use a new and unique term to describe the people who operated aircraft.

Nobody knows for sure when the term pilot began to become synonymous with aviator, but I think it may have happened in the 1920 and 30s when governments began to license and regulate aviation.

Maritime pilots were already certified so it probably made sense, when it came to creating a licensing system for aviators, to call those people pilots, too. Many of the operational techniques and standards we use in aviation trace their routes to maritime traditions and standards so the idea of a captain being in command, or a pilot in command, made sense in aviation.

But aviator continues to have a broader meaning than pilot. For example, it would be correct to call a navigator or flight engineer or bombardier an aviator. I also think it is a compliment to call a pilot with well rounded and broad experience an aviator, something more than simply a pilot.

The U.S. Navy never shelved the term aviator and continues to call its pilots Naval Aviators, and flying activity Naval Aviation. Perhaps that is because the Navy was using pilots for hundreds of years before the first airplane flew and wants to emphasize the difference between maritime navigation and flying. I’m sure some Naval Aviator will set me straight on the real reason.

Of course there are several other terms for a pilot. The military typically calls the PIC an aircraft commander. If you were called the pilot on a Space Shuttle, you were actually the copilot to the commander. There is a pilot in command (PIC) on any airplane, and if there is only one pilot onboard, there is no question who holds that title. But when more than one pilot is in the cockpit, or even onboard the airplane, it is essential that only one be designated PIC and that person is called captain. Copilots are normally called first officers. First typically means head of the line, but in this case the first officer is second in command (SIC).

Then we have instructors and examiners who are also pilots in their own right, but we don’t usually refer to them as pilots. For many years large airplanes carried flight engineer who were most often pilots, too, but they were called FEs, not pilots.

My point is that flying titles are sliced and diced in all manner of ways, but there is one term that describes anyone qualified to participate in the safe and effective operation of any type of aircraft and that is aviator. We all hold different pilot certificates and ratings, but if we are good at what we do in an aircraft we are aviators, and that’s what I have always wanted to be.


Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 14 Comments

Is A Crash A Crime?

Posted on February 2, 2012 by Mac

In many countries accidents are considered to be criminal acts. Italy and Brazil come to mind as nations that have treated high profile aviation accidents as criminal acts by the pilots involved.

 In Italy several years ago a U.S. military pilot flew into a ski lift cable system and a number of people on the lift were killed. The Italian government sought to prosecute the pilot. In Brazil an Embraer business jet on a delivery flight back to theU.S. collided with a Boeing 737 airliner causing the Boeing to crash killing all aboard while the Embraer crew was miraculously able to get the badly damaged business jet safely to a runway. The Brazilian courts prosecuted the Embraer pilots for a criminal act.

 In theU.S. we have created a system that treats accidents as accidents, at least in the criminal sense. There is financial liability involved after most crashes, but the actions of those involved are treated by the government as mistakes, not willful actions that could be a crime.

This attitude toward accident investigation has helped make the U.S. aviation system the safest in the world. Everyone involved in the post-crash investigation knows that they can cooperate without fear of jeopardizing their freedom. It takes cooperation from all to uncover the chain of events that lead to crashes, and by knowing what caused an accident we can help prevent the same occurrence in the future. That’s one of the essential reasons that NTSB findings are not admissible in courts. The NTSB must remain independent so all involved in an accident are encouraged to cooperate fully in the investigation.

 But now a prosecutor and grand jury in Massachusetts are charging the pilot of a Cessna 310 with involuntary manslaughter. The pilot crashed the piston twin short of the runway in darkness killing his daughter, the only passenger.

 The NTSB has not completed its investigation and issued a probable cause of the accident that happened in January of 2011, but it is the facts in the case that have driven the prosecutors and grand jury to bring charges.

 The pilot/owner of the Cessna 310 did not have a multiengine rating. The NTSB reports the pilot had about 500 hours of total experience, and he had gone through a period of six or seven years of no flying before he purchased the 310. The NTSB believes he received approximately 50 hours of multiengine instruction but never attempted the check ride necessary to earn the multiengine rating.

 Commanding an airplane that you are not rated to fly violates the most fundamental FAR. It is not possible the 310 pilot could not have known that he was not FAA approved to command the piston twin flying solo, and certainly not with a passenger.

 The other basic rule that was broken is lack of night currency. The pilot had not logged the required three takeoffs and landings at night within the previous 90 days that are necessary to legally carry a passenger when flying in darkness.

 The reality is that almost every accident involves at least some violation of the rules. After all, it is essentially illegal to crash. But is this accident different? Are the rules violations involved so willful and premeditated as to rise to the level of a criminal act?

 We all deplore the actions of the 310 pilot and nobody can condone flying—much less carrying passengers—without being approved to do so. But I hate to see any aviation accident enter the nether world of the criminal court system.

 To my thinking criminal sanctions are intended to deter others from committing the same illegal act and to punish the criminal to help prevent the convicted from breaking the law again. The criminal just system is designed to protect the rest of society from harm. And I am sure that the grand jury and prosecutors in this case believe they are issuing both a deterrence message and punishing the pilot.

 But I think this is a bad trade. It’s true the pilot’s willful disregard of the rules helped put his passenger’s safety at risk, and also increased the risk of people on the ground near the flight path. On the other hand, the cooperation of pilots and all others involved in accident investigations is so fundamental to improving safety that punishing one bad actor can have a chilling effect on all pilots and thus cause greater harm to overall flying safety.

 This pilot killed his own daughter and I can’t imagine a punishment more severe. As for prosecution acting as a deterrence I think it will only deter all of us from working to promote safety by uncovering all of the details of the chain of events that lead to most accidents.

 Bottom line this was a terrible piece of flying, and that’s true of many accidents. We must work to improve all of our flying abilities and procedures, not threaten to jail those who screw up. Safety will suffer.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 23 Comments

Are Touchscreens Here to Stay?

Posted on January 25, 2012 by Mac

The Garmin GTN 750 touchscreen flight management system

Garmin is all in on touchscreen avionics. It will no longer build its wildly successful GNS 430/530 flight management systems which have been replaced in production by the GTN 700/600 series units that have touchscreen control. Garmin also has the G2000, G3000 and G5000 integrated flat glass systems that span the spectrum from piston single to the fastest business jet all using touchscreen control units.

And Garmin is by no means alone. Avidyne has announced development of touchscreen navigation and flight management control units. So has Bendix/King. And one of the biggest players of all, Rockwell Collins, has added touchscreen capability to its Fusion advanced flat glass avionics system for turbine airplanes.

We’re living in a touchscreen world given the overwhelming acceptance of smart phones, iPads and all manner of personal electronic devices. Even a new refrigerator and clothes dryer has a touchscreen pad to command its operation. Why would aviation not join in the touchscreen revolution.

Garmin was first to market with an installed and certified touchscreen system when it introduced the GTN 750/650 about a year ago. Garmin had been showing me developmental versions of touchscreen avionics for a few years so I wasn’t surprised. The GTN 750/650 was the product of extremely intensive research and development by Garmin because, well, they were betting the farm on superseding the GNS 400/500 series, the most successful avionics units in history.

From the first time I heard about, or thought about, touchscreen avionics I had two big concerns. The first was how well could we pilots operate a touchscreen device in turbulence. And the other thought was how long would it take for us to break the decades old habit of having knobs and buttons dedicated to performing the same function all of the time.

My concern about using a touchscreen in turbulent conditions is, I think, unfounded. My fear was based on some push button avionics systems from the late 1970s that, when mounted in a vertical position on an instrument panel, were hard to operate in the bumps. But Garmin addressed most of those issues by designing in a kind of raised ridge around the screen that allows you to grip with several fingers while using one to touch in commands. As touchscreens are integrated into new airplane designs the screens will be tilted off the vertical so your hand can rest on the edge of the screen making operation even easier.

The issue of transitioning from dedicated knobs and buttons to touchscreen menus is actually being resolved by our everyday lives. Most of us are spending so much time using touchscreen devices that it has, or quickly will be, the norm. When I call Exec Air and ask them to fuel the airplane I use a touchscreen. I typically use my smart phone to enter the flight plan into flightplan.com. I use a touchscreen in the car when I drive to the airport. So it’s just natural that in the airplane touchscreens will be there.

The discussion of whether a touchscreen is easier or harder to use in the airplane is almost irrelevant. The real question is do touchscreens allow precise and desired control of our avionics? I think the answer is yes. And what flows from that is all sorts of benefits for the future.

Designing, certifying and manufacturing a touchscreen avionics system initially is probably about as complex, and costs about the same, as creating one with traditional buttons and knobs. But after that initial design, it’s game over for the touchscreen. Almost any changes in avionics operation, or new technology, or new regulation, can be handled via the touchscreen through new programming. If the design of the system, or its menus, or the steps required for normal operation are not optimum, they can be improved as we gain experience. Buttons and knobs lock us into the now—actually the past when the equipment was designed–but the touchscreen keeps the door open for almost continuous change and improvement.

As good as the touchscreen is for performing most avionics functions there are some tasks that just can’t be done better than with a twist knob or button. For example, can any control device beat a twist knob for setting the heading bug? No. Same for dialing in a baro setting, or a target altitude. Those types of simple and direct flying tasks we do dozens of times on every flight and have only a single level of complexity just can’t be improved on, and they won’t take on new forms and functions in the future.

Aviation must necessarily always be a step or two behind the newest technology because we only want to leave the ground using structural material and equipment with proven performance. But now, touchscreen technology is so embedded in all of our lives it’s time for it to move into our cockpits. Garmin has sold more than 90 million various electronic devices for all manner of uses and most of those use touchscreens. Pretty good testing to get ready to fly.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 44 Comments

Over Water Worries

Posted on January 17, 2012 by Mac

spacer I was chatting with EAA founder Paul Poberezny last week. What an amazing guy. Through a very unusual set of circumstances during his military career during World War II and then as an officer in the Wisconsin National Guard he was able to fly an enormous variety of airplanes.
Most military pilots stay with fighters, or bombers or transports, and fly only a relatively few types in their category. But Paul flew everything from trainers to transports to fighters to tankers. He was showing me his military logbooks that often had him flying a single seat fighter and a large transport in the same day.
Paul’s career spanned the transition from pistons to jets and he regularly flew both at the same time after a pair of jet engines was added to the KC-97 tanker to give its four radial piston engines a boost. “Four churning and two burning is what we used to say about that one,” Paul said.
I planned to fly back home from Oshkosh to the Muskegon airport in Michigan on the other side the lake that afternoon. Paul asked me “do you just keep climbing until you get to 10,000 feet or higher so that you can make it across the lake?”
With two engines on my Baron I really don’t think much about engine failure over the water. The odds of losing both engines on one flight—if you have fuel onboard—is very remote. And holding altitude isn’t much of a question because over the water 100 feet will do it. The only obstacle is the big sand dune that hugs the eastern shore of Lake Michigan and is about 200 feet high near the Muskegon airport.
Paul was unimpressed by my logic. “What about an airframe failure?” he asked. “What if a propeller blade breaks off, or some system fails and you want to get on the ground right away?”
I had not really considered that possibility. I guess it’s the luxury of having been a pilot for only 40 years or so compared to Paul’s 75 years of experience. I haven’t flown through the really hairy days of aviation as he did.
It’s easy from the distance of years to glamorize the “golden age” of piston engine flying in large and powerful airplanes. Those piston engines pumping out thousands of horsepower were stressed to the limits—and maybe beyond the limits we would accept today. It’s hard to imagine the stress on a propeller being pounded by the pulse of 28 or more piston strokes generating 2,000, 3,000, or even a little more horsepower. Major failures had to be expected, and they did occur.
Lake Michigan itself also looms large for pilots in the middle of the country because unlike the four other Great Lakes, it must be considered on many trips. It’s pretty easy to skirt the southern shore of the other Great Lakes, but Lake Michigan is a 330 mile long north-to-south water hazard waiting to drown any pilot unlucky enough to end up splashing into its icy water. Paul grew up and learned to fly in Milwaukee, and spent most of his military career flying out of Wisconsin, so the big lake was always a consideration for him. I grew up and learned to fly on the south shore of Lake Erie which is much smaller, and unless you want to be in Canada, is not much of a factor on most flights.
I thought about Paul and his generation as I sat over Lake Michigan later that day. I had two and a half hours of fuel onboard for the 37 minute flight. My Continentals can only make 300 hp at sea level so the stress on the props, engine mounts and so on was coming from maybe 230 hp at cruise flight. And I was 1,000 pounds below maximum takeoff weight. Life for my airplane was easy. But Paul and his generation of aviators are reminders that flying wasn’t always so.

Posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog | 30 Comments

Two Single-Engine Jets Funded Again

Posted on January 9, 2012 by Mac

spacer The Cirrus SF50 Vision single-engine jet development program had been on hold since last fall while the company’s new Chinese based owner, CAIGA, analyzed and reviewed the program. But the new owners are apparently satisfied with the prospects for the small jet and Cirrus says development work on the program is now going ahead full speed.

A few weeks ago the Diamond D-Jet got a similar shot in the arm in the form of new company ownership and financing from investors fromDubai. The D-Jet program has been in the works for years and three prototypes have been flying. But like the Cirrus Vision, the D-Jet program had been on the shelf for months awaiting new funding commitments.  Continue reading

Posted in Aircraft, Industry & Government | 15 Comments

The International Politics of NDB Approaches

Posted on January 4, 2012 by Mac

A typical NDB antenna installation is as simple as wires strung between telephone poles (background). Often a fan-style marker beacon (foreground) can be found at these sites as well. Courtesy: lancesanders.com

How old is the non-directional beacon (NDB) as an aeronautical navigation aid? Eighty years? 90 years? Or maybe more. I’m not sure. The NDB was certainly around before even the fancy four-course range with its dit-dah left-right guidance along a “beam.” But the four-course range died decades ago while the NDB lives on. What’s up with that?

In most countries other than theU.S.an ADF receiver capable of navigating using NDB signals is still a requirement for IFR flight. Newly designed mega million dollar airplanes are still leaving the factory with an ADF receiver, or more often two of them. That’s like including an Underwood manual typewriter along with every new iPad sold.  Continue reading

Posted in Aircraft, Industry & Government, Technology | 40 Comments

The Good, and the Bad in 2011

Posted on December 30, 2011 by Mac

The affect on aircraft sales during this recession was out of character as top-end GA aircraft continued to sell while almost all other segments suffered. Courtesy: Piper Aircraft

I’ve been writing this Left Seat blog for EAA with the generous sponsorship of Aspen Avionics for a year. I don’t think it’s my fault, but 2011 has not been the most memorable year in aviation, but there was some good mixed in with the bad.  Continue reading

Posted in Aircraft, Airmanship, Flying for Fun, Industry & Government, Safety, Technology | 11 Comments

When High Pressure Isn’t Always Good

Posted on December 22, 2011 by Mac

Courtesy: blog.minitab.com

All pilots are amateur meteorologists out of necessity. And one weather fact we think we know is that high pressure systems make for good flying weather. And that’s generally true – but not always at this time of the year.

As you remember from private pilot ground school, high pressure systems typically clear out the atmosphere, bringing good visibility and generally clear skies. The soggy stable air of low pressure systems can collect lots of moisture that leads to widespread clouds and reduced visibility. Lows usually spawn fronts that add their own mix of flying weather challenges.  Continue reading

Posted in Airmanship, Safety | 8 Comments

Small Aircraft Transportation System

Posted on December 14, 2011 by Mac

spacer At one time NASA promoted SATS – What happened?

In the mid-1990s NASA created a program to revive general aviation and transform piston airplanes into reliable transportation machines that could be safely operated by pilots without thousands of hours of experience. The hope was to create a small aircraft transportation system (SATS) that would allow people to travel with convenience and predictability between the thousands of airports in the country that are not served by scheduled airlines.

The general aviation industry applauded. Richard Collins and I scratched our heads. We, and many thousands of other pilots, had been SATS participants for decades and didn’t even know it. We used our airplanes for transportation and essentially matched the schedule reliability of the major airlines, which was a bit of a challenge then, but not that difficult now. What would SATS do that we didn’t?  Continue reading

Posted in Industry & Government, Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog, Safety | 46 Comments

When Dual Can Equal Disaster

Posted on December 8, 2011 by Mac

TruTrak Auto Trim module on an RV. Courtesy: Ivan and Dianne Kristensen

Every well-trained crew, or any competent instructor, always makes it absolutely clear who has the controls. Even pilots who have flown together for hundreds or thousands of hours always announce aloud, “You have the controls,” and the other pilot responds, “I have the controls.”

These procedures come from the hard-learned lessons that somebody must always be in control, but two can never be in control effectively and safely at the same time.  Continue reading

Posted in Aircraft, Airmanship, Technology | 6 Comments