Saturday, July 30, 2005

I love these questions....

Anyway- the lesson.. remember I had had no prior of flying or flight and did not know better about implications of things that might have happened. I think it was my 3rd or 4th lesson. We were doing the engine run-ups when the C152 (ZK-ELV, known as ELVis) ran very roughly on the left mag. We increased the rpms to see if that would clear it but it still ran rough. Idled for a few more seconds, increased the rpms and it seemed to clear. Continued thru the DVA's then taxiid for takeoff. It seemed to take a looong time for the plane to lift off and actually settled back down very briefly, so we would have used more runway than normal. Finally lifted off, then at about 200 ft the engine sounded real funny and the instructor said "I'll just take control for a bit" a couple of seconds later everything sounded fine and we continued on- doing stalls and he even did a spin to lose height on the way back down. When we landed and taxiid in, the other instructors at the aero club had heard the rough running of the engine (we were maybe at the far threshold of the runway at 200 ft by then)and ran out to have a look. I also found out we had taken off with a quartering tailwind, that was why it took so long to lift off. A couple of people I talked to after (remember I was totally ignorant of what quartering tailwinds would mean to performance etc)said that with the engine running rough at engine run-ups, it was foolish to take off with the tailwind, as had the engine continued to run roughly, we would not have been able to make a safe landing (houses etc in the way). Also, to continue on to do stalls etc was foolish too. Now, possibly if it was 1 mag sticking, we could have switched to the other mag and made it back OK to land - but I also know there are other reasons for engines to run rough. What are your thoughts on this? Is it a big deal or as my instructor said, it wasn't a problem? I think it was just the reactions of those other people (1 a high hour glider pilot and senior instructor and the other a high hour private pilot)who unsettled me on this.

First of all, that is a great nickname for an airplane.

A couple thoughts on the questions. First, magnetos could run rough for several reasons. The one the instructor was checking for would have been fouling of the spark plugs. If a bit of fouling was the problem, then running the engine hotter could solve that by burning off deposits. If the mag check is clear after that, generally you have no further issues, and learn to lean the mixture control better, or get the mixture cable adjusted by a mechanic. Clearing the plugs may take a couple tries. If they sound clear after that, you generally don't have any problem continuing. If not, then stop the flight right there.

Departing with a tailwind can be a very bad idea. Or it can be no big deal. It sort've depends. The toughest part of learning to fly is acquiring the desicion-making skills. I forget the V speeds and performance numbers on the 152. It has been a very long time since I flew one. Whether or not to depart with a tailwind would come down to a couple factors though: 1) expected takeoff and obstacle clearance distances (which increase dramatically with a tailwind) versus what is available. 2) the "cost" of going to the headwind. (meaning, extra time spent, or whatever, though being in a hurry there is never a great idea). 3) potential for unexpected situation.

So to sum up, it is the margin of safety built into the situation, compared to whatever might be lost by the other option, plus the emergency you might be about to have, but don't know about yet. How much margin do you have, and how much are you willing to give up?

Think of it this way (I'll use round numbers to make it easy). Kinetic energy is the big factor. (energy coming from the velocity of the aircraft). with a 50 knot stall speed, and a 10 knot wind, the difference is this: requiring a groundspeed of either 40 knots or 60, depending on which runway you use. In that scenario, using the tailwind forces you to come up with 56% more energy than the other option, before you have a chance to leave the ground. A C152 is rather underpowered, and that would increase your runway needs dramatically. Unless you have huge amounts of extra runway, it is risky at best.

Eight days before my crash, I was forced to land the CT with a 10 knot tailwind component & gusty winds, or seriously risk being stuck in a severe thunderstorm, with no means of safely getting out. If I'd had time to get to the other runway, that would have been the best option, and I'd have done that under any normal scenario. My kinetic energy upon touchdown was almost three times as much as the other option. Seriousness of potential injury also goes up about that much. The only reason I did that, is because the other option was more dangerous.

In any case, landings are mandatory. Takeoffs are not. Unless you have far more runway than you need, with a plane that you don't suspect of any possible problems, and the tailwind component is very small, then the risk is generally not acceptable.

Settling back to the runway might be a couple things. Was it a soft-field takeoff? If so, the instructor might have simply tried to get too far from ground effect before getting enough airspeed. That one, everybody does at some point. But knowing the plane was taking too much runway, that would be a sign to abort. Always have an abort point in mind before getting on the runway in the first place. Always.

Sometimes, I've gotten a feeling in flight that some system wasn't quite right, and done some troubleshooting. When it seems ok, I continue the flight, always having at least a couple options for the emergency that can develop. If not, I return to the airport and prepare for the possibility of the problem getting worse. I mentally prepare for an emergency on every flight. Every flight. The few times something has gone wrong, I reacted the way I prepared myself to react. But you should always give yourself room to have at least one safe option. They say flying is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror. You just never know when that 1% is going to happen.

Not having heard the sounds, or felt the sluggishness of the actual flight in question, I'm not sure I could be adamant about that instructor being unknowledgeable, lazy or negligent. (How much wind was it, how bad was the noise, did it really sound like fouling or something else, how much runway was there, etc....).

My guess would be, if multiple other more experienced pilots were concerned, then I wouldn't make light of it.

And the forecast is........

.... fog. Until the thunderstorms start. That's about normal for the last two weeks. So this makes it 6 consecutive scheduled flights I've had to cancel.

After speaking to the FAA's investigator, it seems the retelling of their conclusion was slightly off. I was puzzling at how they could expect the plane to put that large and long a scar in the runway, go through 150 feet of grass, then crumple the nose gear, then still have enough remaining kinetic energy to flip over quickly. The scar on the pavement was deep enough to indicated to me that had we done that, the plane would only be going about 30 by the end of the pavement. The ground past it would have surely taken a good scar if the pavement was grooved from whatever caused that. My best guess is, their scenario with the airspeed I know we had at the time, would have left us hitting the hill at no more than 10 miles per hour. If we had gotten to the hill at all.

These things were a puzzle to me, and I had to wait a while before he returned my phone call. He decided that the plane must have been traveling significantly faster than I claim. This is simply not possible. The top permissible speed for that flap setting was 60 knots. Had we been there at any point, I would have forced DC to abort the approach and go around.

That has been one of my issues with the plane since the beginning. In a power-off glide, the plane needs at least 50 knots of indicated airspeed to have enough kinetic energy to flare without hitting hard. But exceeding 60 is too much. So only a ten knot airspeed range is acceptable, without using power to control the descent rate at the last minute. In my old Cessna 172, also with 40 degrees of flap, there was a 30 knot range, and more inertia to hold speed constant.

When the investigator returned my call, I asked a few questions, and gave him more details he was wanting. Since our versions didn't match, I wanted to know if he would like any sort of addendum filed. I also wanted to head off any concern about the aircraft documents. He was a little miffed, I was told, that the airworthiness and registration documents were not still aboard. DC had taken them out, not knowing he shouldn't, and I never saw him do that. Otherwise, I was trying to get some insight into his mindset, and make him aware that I wanted to cooperate in any way I could. Even when fault is assigned, they often only want the pilot to admit to making a mistake. Arguing with them is generally disadvantageous.

The four days since the crash have been helpful to me though. I've come up with many very specific questions in my own mind about what I would have to see on the scene to indicate one type of scenario or another. I know what could be found to prove me right. I also know what would be found if they were right.

Friday, July 29, 2005

A Second Opinion

I spoke to our local designated pilot examiner a few minutes ago. He's a highly experienced 767 captain, and has time in many more makes of aircraft than I do. I've been sending students to him for years. I went to him for a couple of my checkrides as a student, as much as 4 1/2 years ago. We have very similar opinions of the proper way to do things, and I've come to greatly respect his opinions when I have any issue.

After setting up Joe's private license checkride for a week from today, I explained about the crash. All the details. I was happy to get confirmation from him that my emergency decision-making process and not worrying about saving the plane, saved our lives. I sought his thoughts, because he knows much better than I do how to proceed through this kind of situation, and what to say and not say.

So I have a game plan. He was in agreement about my assessment of what I ought to do from here, and even suggested getting depositions from anyone else who is familiar with the nature of that type of plane, simply to back up our side of the story. If the FAA's current adjudication regarding the events persists, then we will go happily along with it. That will only benefit us. We can't be charged responsible, for inability to control the plane after a sudden mechanical failure, during an inherently critical phase of flight. It will also be better with respect to insurance companies.

So I've left another message with the investigator. I don't want to roll over and let them go without my input being respected.

I've really started thinking about the ways this whole thing could have been different. Same situation, but a different location, or different terrain. If the ground had been flat, with no hill or obstacle, could it have been fixed? I don't know. In any case, we might have rolled to a stop with no damage.

On the other side though, if I had tried to climb out, there is no way it could have happened. The climb angle needed was impossibly steep. Not by much, but enough that I recognized it immediately. If we had cleared the hill, we'd have hit a house, and caused large amounts of damage, not to mention risking other lives. We would almost assuredly have been killed in that scenario. Or if all that had happened at one of the mountaintop airports we had just visited, where the terrain went down very steep. Not a likely survival scenario, and also not likely that anyone would have found us at all. At least not for a day or two.

Regardless, what I chose was the lowest-speed possibility at the time. And I know I did what was necessary in that situation to ensure walking away from it. And now I have a respected opinion that agrees.

The Grapevine

Word of the crash has finally made it all around the airport here, and on to several other friends. One friend in Florida just called. Another friend, based here, told him. I hadn't talked to either of them since Tuesday, but word gets around the campfire pretty quickly at this airport. I suppose that is the case anywhere. Amazingly, the fourth-hand version of the story is remarkably similar to the original. Only a few minor details changed along the way.

My eyes are a little more swollen every day now. The bump I took on the left shin stays sore. Otherwise, it all feels ok. DC and I are looking to try to fly back down to that airport, for a couple reasons. I want to reinspect the scene, to see if I can decide what the difference is between our version and the FAA's. And we need to get the avionics out of the plane before the insurance company takes it. The avionics are worth about $40,000, and were not included in the insurance declarations. When it was insured, the plane didn't even have a radio. Just the necessary engine and flight instruments required by regulation. (14 CFR 91.205). So those are fair game, if I can convince the FAA investigator to let us remove them.

I've been trying to get back to flying here, ever since returning. Wednesday's flights had to be cancelled to let me get settled back. The weather would not have allowed it anyway. (A storm came through that produced 90-mph winds). Yesterday's flights had to be cancelled for weather. Today I was supposed to fly with the airport manager this morning, but fog prevented that. Still instrument conditions here, so the next two flights are looking to be rescheduled also.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Head Trauma, part three

I'm sure the investigator knows how to do his job better than I do. I just wish I could be there to see it. I never looked to see if the pavement scrape was smooth, as you would expect from a high-speed scenario, or if it showed jagged lines, from slow scraping. I never looked at the tire carefully. I simply never gave any credence to a possibility beyond my recollection.

This conclusion is not bad, as far as the investigation is concerned. It means we suffered a sudden mechanical failure, causing loss of control. At least it is a cause they can clearly identify as something that could reasonably result in our crash. To an extent, that gets me slightly off the hook for failure to control it.

I suppose there isn't much to do, other than accept that memory is an unreliable witness. Even seconds after the fact. One thing bothers me more than anything else though: If we had touched down, why did both of us believe we were five feet up and needing power to soften the landing? After my first two or three landings in that plane, I was always completely aware of our height above ground, and almost always got a feather-soft landing from it. Even once, 8 days before this, when we were returning from Tangier Island. I had to make a landing with gusty crosswinds, and a ten knot tailwind component. The people watching congratulated me after, on having such a smooth landing in those conditions. It had been a total non-issue.

The other part of the puzzle to me is this: I'm always conscious of keeping the nose up during the first few seconds of landing. DC had taken his training very well, and was never touching down flat on all three tires. I broke him of that. All the events, if they transpired as the investigator believes, require me to have misjudged a couple things, and react incorrectly. To react in ways that I never do.

So I don't know what to make of it. Did I react incorrectly there, opposing the brain and muscle memory of several thousand past landings? Or is my memory so far removed from the actual events that I simply can't process it?

I think I need more coffee.

Head Trauma, part two

I've spent the last two hours in a haze, trying to process their findings. There was a scar on the runway, which I remembered looking at. I had thought it was from pulling the plane out. The tire tracks I saw showed me a truck pulling the plane out, but the plane not touching down immediately.

I don't claim to be an investigator, and the empirical part of me knows that I was not at the scene investigating it, merely taking it in. Sensory closure, maybe. Had I observed more closely at the time, maybe I could get my brain to agree with their findings.

Their conclusion is that we suffered a sudden tire failure on touchdown, causing loss of directional control. From what I recall of the scene, I can understand how they decided that. I can also logically grasp that in the middle of a sudden emergency, the brain can do weird things to you. And hey, I did hit my head rather hard. So that should be as good an excuse as any, for bad memory.

All these things, I can grasp. Except I can't force the aural, visual and tactile memories from my brain to concur. I've been trying. My memories tell a completely different story. They recount a smooth feeling; of gliding somewhat softly off to the right. No pavement transition. I remember thinking I had to get the plane on the ground before hitting the hill. Then, just the whisping sound and feel of tires going through medium-tall grass for a moment, before the wall of terrain coming to meet my face.

I have real trouble latching onto the idea of having touched down at all on the pavement. No matter how smooth it might be, you feel the vibration, and hear the hum. If the nose tire had blown, it would have vibrated much more. I'd never had a blown tire in a plane, but I know the feeling well enough from a car. In the throes of an emergency, the mind can block out the noise easily enough. But the nose gear was directly linked to the rudder pedals. They would have been vibrating significantly. I only remember a smooth, almost peaceful transition to the grass.

One of the few pieces of concrete evidence that would possibly agree with me, I can't be certain of without re-examining the plane: the tire itself. After the fact, I did glance at the tire, which was flat. But I specifically recall not seeing any shredding of the tire. From the vantage afforded to me, it appeared merely flat. The last time I suffered an automotive flat tire, it was completely shredded, even having damaged the quarter panel in the process. But the few photos I took with my cellphone camera are just not sharp enough to shed any light. I really wish they hadn't moved the plane before I got back to the scene.

Head Trauma, part one

How do you manage to convince yourself of something completely different than what your brain tells you? That's the dilemma I've been wrestling with for the last two hours. Invariably, coffee helps.

Today, the FAA inspector went to the crash site to start investigating. I should back up though.

When I viewed the scene myself, I had a number of thoughts. I was partly just trying to piece together what happened, to solidify it in my brain. Always a tough thing to do when you've hit your head. The elaboration of events, as I wrote them, was exactly the way my brain processed it, and just an expansion of the narrative I filed with the FAA. I was having trouble deciding exactly where the plane touched down though.

At one point, I thought we had glided a couple seconds, and touched just before the rut. But I had a vague memory of the feeling of brushing through the grass for a moment before we flipped over. So I was fine with the decision that we had rolled for 100 feet or so first.

The FAA came to an entirely different conclusion though.

Looks like flying is a no-go today. Joe showed up just 5 minutes after the rain started. We had planned to do ground instruction in prep for the checkride, which we hope is in the next week or so. But the rains are hard and steady, and not going away any time soon here. My 6pm flight is off too, most likely.

DC and I are now having to get back down to Tennessee. The $40,000 worth of avionics in the plane were installed after insurance declarations, so they are not included. That means we have to remove all of it before the insurance rep gets there. We figure it will be marked as a total loss on the airplane. When they do that, if the avionics are not removed we lose them, and the insurance company walks away with an easy way to recoup some of their losses. We are going to try to fly down there in the next few days with our mechanic.
We found out more detail about the situation with the DiamondStar's forced return home yesterday. We had thought perhaps there was an icing event. The pilot went back to the plane late yesterday and looked more carefully. What he found was partial remains of a bird. Just one wing. He doesn't recall hitting one, so it may have been done prior. At least we can be reassured that there isn't a problem with the plane itself. Good, because that's what I will be using to fly back down there.

I managed a few photos of the plane from my cellphone camera. I was just showing them to Joe. Interesting to look back at them. As soon as I can figure out how to get them off my phone, I'll post them.

I got a chance to sleep in this morning, and that did wonders. I'm noticing some decent swelling around my nose and under both eyes. I feel as if I'm squinting a little bit with both eyes. Otherwise, nothing new, just bruises starting to get a little more defined, and scabs starting the healing process. I noticed yesterday that the entire swollen area on my forehead was numb. That's starting to get better.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Fell off a Tractor, part VI

After returning to look at the airplane, I was impressed with how much blood I had left in it. All the blood that DC had on him was mine also. After inspecting the plane, we knew it would certainly be considered "substantial damage" by the regulations, so we would have to report it. It was late in the day by then though, so the guys at the airport took us to Walmart to let us buy some clothes, then to the motel nearby.

I don't often draw significant attention to myself, at least intentionally. But walking into Walmart absolutely covered in blood is a good way to do that. If I had only been carrying an axe, I could have created terror in the store, no doubt. We bought some clothes, filled my antibiotic prescription, and checked into the motel.

The plan at that point was for one of our pilot friends back home to bring a plane and pick us up. He called to say he was leaving. An hour later, he called to say he was back at the starting point. He had climbed to 8,000 feet through some thick haze, and started experiencing partial loss of power. He made it back safely, and they later determined it was likely due to intake icing. They say bad things come in threes, so we started getting nervous.

A little later in the morning, they picked us up, and we went back to the airport. I wanted to inspect the scene myself. It is an odd feeling looking at your own crash site. But I came away with a good impression. I still don't believe I could have done any better under the circumstances. Still, it is odd picking up pieces of plexiglass with your own blood on them.

Our next option for a ride home was to have one of the helpful locals fly us. We waited for the fog to clear, then climbed aboard his Piper Arrow for the thankfully uneventful 2-hour flight home. Back at my home airport, I stayed largely out of sight, so I wouldn't be bothered by people asking about my new Frankenstein look. After getting our pilot on his way home, we sat down to hunt for the right phone numbers to call, and got started on the reporting process.

I've read many NTSB accident reports, and I know how they end up. You could argue for either one of us being the pilot in command. We were simply out on a pleasure flight, not an instructional one. However, since I had been instructing him previously and recently, and I was sitting in front of the controls, I will most likely take the heat for it. I don't really mind. DC wanted to take the blame; he was doing all of the flying. But I'm an experienced instructor, and he is a low-time private pilot. So I bet it will officially fall on me.

I faxed my narrative of the accident to the Nashville Flight Standards District Office, and the investigator will be inspecting the plane tomorrow. So we just wait and see. I believe that 40 degrees of flaps created an aerodynamic interference with the controls. Maybe the flaps were rigged slightly wrong in the first place. Eventually, I think that will be found to be the case. But I also think they will officially chalk it up to pilot failure to maintain control.

I am confident the plane is going to be totaled. There is just enough damage all over, that it would be a huge effort to repair, and likely not worth it. DC doesn't really mind. He can afford it, and he was never really comfortable in that plane from the start. He never found the confidence that usually comes from experience. So we will be flying in the next few days, back in the cockpit of the Diamond Eclipse, to see if he can still handle it. I think he will do fine.

Now, we get to sit and wait for the FAA to decide whether to pursue anything. We get to explain what happened to everybody at the airport. And we can reflect on the whole situation, thankful nothing worse happened. I won't get much of a break though. I cancelled today's flights, but I get right back into it tomorrow.

Fell off a Tractor in Tennessee, part V

Riding to the hospital, I occupied myself with trying to avoid spilling too much blood in the truck. I wasn't feeling dizzy, but I was starting to notice a sense of dehydration. We had to ride for ten minutes or so, which became 15 from an inability to find the hospital. My driver had to stop at a jail to ask a sherriffs officer how to get there.

Arriving at a hospital, you might wonder how long it will take to get help. I did. But being soaked in blood which is gushing from your forehead is a great way to get noticed. They took me into a room, started asking the standard questions, and began to try cleaning up the blood. By now, my shirt and jeans were covered, both arms covered, and my hair was starting to sit straight up from all the blood coagulating in it.

One of the guys who was helping us, suggested waiting on reporting the accident. The regulations regarding those reports can be confusing at first glance. If the accident had involved serious injuries or "substantial damage" to the plane, then imediate notification was required. Injuries were minor, and the plane had appeared generally intact, so we didn't worry about it for the moment. We had more pressing issues anyway. As I sat, getting cleaned up, DC and our driver sat in the waiting room, and fielded questions concerning the cause of the accident. They were concerned that the FAA would get called too quickly- and possibly unnecessarily- so when asked the cause, they said I fell off a tractor.

Meanwhile, I was thinking that while a needless call to the FAA might be a pain, the doctors ought to know the deal, in order to properly look for other injuries I might not have recognized immediately. So I told them the truth. Well, I was prevaricating a bit, perhaps. I said I put my face through a window. They asked how. I said it was an airplane window. Again, they wanted more detail. You just can't please some people. I finally told them, that kind of thing can happen sometimes, when you crash an airplane. That seemed to be enough information for them at the moment.

The doctor came in after a few minutes, and we talked while the nurse was preparing all the fun stuff. (Hypodermic needles and stitches, and various implements of the trade) . Turned out, he was also a pilot. We discussed aviation for a few minutes, and before long, they were ready to sew me up. I took ten stitches in the forehead. Other than that, everything was really minor. Plenty of other small cuts all over my scalp, a gash on the bridge of my nose, a small chunk of flesh missing from below my left knee where a decent bruise was forming, a sore right ankle, and a nice welt and some cuts on my left arm.

From the nature of the cause of my injuries, they decided it would be best to do a CT scan on my head and x-ray my knee. Nothing turned up though. I figured as much, but you have to check.

Fell off a Tractor in Tennessee, part IV

I've never experienced a helpless feeling in an aircraft. When we left the runway, heading toward the hill, with minimal ability to control our path, I still didn't feel helpless. If I ever do, I don't know how I will take it. That hill was 12-15 feet high, and we were still about 3 feet off the ground, slow, and turning. When I first realized I would not be able to recover it, I was thinking about trying to get partway up the hill, intending to get dealt a glancing blow instead of anything that would give us a sudden stop. There's a saying in aviation: if you have to crash land, hit the softest thing around at the slowest possible speed.

However, beyond that hill, lay fences and houses. You never want to jeopardize other people if you can avoid it. And even if the houses were not an issue, that would require hitting the hill with more speed. So I decided to stay as slow as possible, and hope to hit the embankment with the nose up, and at the 45 degree angle from which we were currently approaching. At a time like that, you really don't care what happens to the plane, as long as you minimize human injury.

We were about 40 knots right then, which is around 65 feet per second. All of that decision-making process took no more than 2 seconds. When I came back to the crash site today, I was thinking about that, and became really impressed that a trained human brain can process that much in such a short time.

If we'd still had any airspeed, it might have come out a little better. As it was, we were only a couple knots above a full stall. The nose came down just before the hill, and hit a small ditch, causing the nose gear to collapse. When that happened, we still had more speed than I wanted, and were hitting the hill much closer to straight on. The plane immediately flipped over its nose, and planted itself inverted on the bottom of the hill.

The force of the impact pulled me up from my seat, and my face went right through the plexiglass ceiling panel. I remember it in vivid detail. No brilliant, insightful thoughts. All I was thinking was "this is going to hurt."

A couple seconds later, everything is still. I open my eyes. I'm looking at broken plexiglass, covered with blood. I'm watching the blood continue to drip down. For just a moment, I wondered how long it had been since the crash. A few seconds, or an hour. Except for those few seconds after the impact when my eyes were still closed, I never really lost track of what I needed to do though. DC was saying he was having trouble removing the harness. I got mine off, opened my door and rolled out. I reached back in to shut off the fuel selector and master switch, and pull the magneto key, in order to avoid a fire. My next concern was to get him out of the plane, but he was already free and crawling out.

With the plane basically secured from fire, and both of us extricated, I looked toward the buildings at the ramp, and a couple of guys were running toward us. I glanced down at my door and saw more blood than I expected, and knew I had a reasonably deep gash. I thought my nose might be broken. Looking down at my shirt and jeans, I saw mostly crimson stains increasing in size.

DC is very healthy and quick-witted for being 75 years old. But I was still primarily concerned for him. I figured I'd be ok, but I had no idea what had happened to him. A couple of times he had to reassure me he was fine. I'm a bit taller than he is, so he barely bumped his head. While I tried to be sure of his condition, the guys were trying to rush me over to their truck, to get me to a hospital. They had quickly torn up a shirt and given it to me to put pressure on the cut, but I had to remove it just once to glance in the mirror before getting in the truck. Morbid curiosity, I guess.

Fell off a Tractor in Tennessee, part III

DC has had a habit of approaching too high, ending up with excess altitude to burn off on final. Sometimes that is ok, for example, at Hot Springs where there is plenty of runway, and often a downdraft on short final. Sometimes, it becomes problematic. I've taught him to deal with it properly though. If he finds himself too high, he will slip the plane in, or he will add flaps, until the problem is solved. If those don't fix it, he is ready to abort, and try again.

During one of his previous attempts, I mentioned that it might be unwise to rely on a slip too much with gusty conditions where wind shear is a possibility. At 50 knots, a solid gust might put the plane into a stall. If we are slipped at the time, it might become an incipient spin. Not a good thing a few hundred feet up.

As he turned final at Hawkins Co, he decided to use 40 degrees of flaps. Not really a big deal, unless you get too slow. You really have to pitch the nose down to counteract the sudden extra drag. He handled that fine, so I let him continue. On the round-out to flare, he was a little high, so he did what I had trained him to do- add power. Normally not an issue, but this time, that caused the airplane to yaw a few degrees to the right. He became uncomfortable with that, and initiated a go-around.

That's when it all came crashing down. Up to this point, he had done nothing uncommon or forbidden. Nothing even really unusual. There was no reason for me to believe it would become a problem. We had just landed at 6 other airports so far that day, and all in much gustier conditions. This time the wind was calm.

When he added full power, that's when our situation got bad. The nose yawed even more, to about 15-20 degrees right of runway heading, and banked 5-10 degrees right. Still not normally a problem, I've fixed that kind of bad landing and worse, a thousand times before.

I still instinctively reached for the controls. One of the most difficult parts about instructing is that there is a fine line between giving the student too little room to make mistakes that he will learn from, versus reacting too late. After more than 1,200 hours of instructing and several thousand botched student attempts at landing, I've never encountered something I couldn't fix. Until this time.

We still had a little room before the real stall, and I reached quickly for the controls, and applied left aileron and forward elevator. Except this time, for reasons I have tried for the last 24 hours to understand, it didn't work. The inputs didn't do anything. We were perhaps 5 feet off the ground, and swerving toward the side of the runway, toward an embankment, and the controls were not responding.

Fell off a Tractor in Tennessee, part II

After lunch, we made a plan that would take us from Lonesome Pine, first to Lee County, VA, then down into Tennessee to Hawkins County, then several other airports there, then back up toward home. We wanted to be reasonably careful about terrain, because the clouds had forced us down to 1,500 feet above ground for most of the flight since Hot Springs.

By this time, we were beginning to wonder if we'd ever find a calm wind at an airport. Every landing had been gusty. Lee Co. did the same. I had thought Lonesome Pine was in the middle of nowhere, until I found Lee Co. It is in the farthest southwestern part of the state, only a few miles from Kentucky to the north and Tennessee to the south. You know the picture of a standard "redneck" type of homestead (not that I'm trying to stereotype or claim it is bad)- old junk cars in the yard, tires, random other parts and junk sitting around. That's about all we saw from the air as we approached. This is an area that is truly a long way from home, in more ways than one. We made the landing, with the winds as gusty as we had come to expect that day, then took off toward Tennessee.

From here, the terrain began to come down a bit, allowing us a little extra room beneath the clouds. Hawkins Co. was not far away, and we entered the pattern for the left downwind on runway 25.

Here is where things changed a bit. Before I get to that, let me explain about that plane. The CT-SW is not the easiest plane to fly. DC had been flying a Diamond Eclipse from the beginning of his training, which is docile and very predictable. The CT was a different beast altogether. My first flight in it, when we got it from the dealer, was that it was amazingly touchy, and unpredictable. It is the only plane I have ever not been truly comfortable flying after ten hours.

One of the first things I noticed about it, after getting a little practice, was that it handled fine with 30 degrees of flaps, but going to 40 degrees made it a little less stable. The reality is that 40 degrees is simply too much for a plane of that size. At that point, the flaps cause so much drag, that the extremely low inertia of the plane causes it to try to stop flying. You really have to pitch nose down to keep your airspeed. Practicing stalls, I had been able to get down to 25 knots indicated airspeed with 30 degrees of flaps, but with 40, it wasn't possible.

This is not a new type of issue. Before the early 1970's (approximately), some of the smaller Cessna models came with 40 degrees of flaps. The 1966 Cessna 172H that I used to own was that way. The last bit of flaps was a great speed brake, allowing you to drop in from a very steep approach angle. But Cessna did away with that, turning out models that only went to 30 degrees, largely because of some accidents. An underpowered Cessna 150 flying on a hot day with 40 degrees of flap, might not be capable of even staying level with full power. And it is an accident waiting to happen if you are forced to abort the landing in that configuration.

Anyway, having played with the characteristics a bit on the CT, I decided that 40 degrees were really only beneficial for steepening the descent, but that my procedure would be to retract to 30 degrees before landing. The landing isn't difficult with 40, but it is more difficult than with 30.

Fell off a Tractor in Tennessee, part I

A little bit of absence from the blog, but Rich filled in for me. The last 30 hours have been quite the adventure.

So DC and I headed off to see the wild world of western Virginia, in his CT-SW (pictured above). We were not familiar with the operation of that plane at a high density altitude, so I thought it prudent to test out the performance results on a large, high-elevation airport, before going to smaller ones. So first stop was Hot Springs, VA. In a plane I don't know very well, I keep note of the numbers I see. Upon arrival, we had a density altitude of 5,300 feet at field elevation of 3,792. If you follow that link to the airport, and take a look at the picture, you will see one end of the runway, that is a sheer dropoff. The other end of the runway does the same.

For the sheer beauty of landing right smack on top of a mountain with cliffs on either end, that is one of my favorite airports. There are things to be really careful about though. We were using runway 25, with wind out of 290, at about 10 knots. That is conducive to having a very strong downdraft on short final, so you have to hedge your bets by coming in a little high. You also can't afford to be low in the pattern, because the left downwind for runway 25 passes over a hill that is a couple hundred feet higher than the airport.

We did a couple landings there, then proceeded onward, toward Bluefield, WV. From here on, we were visiting unfamiliar terrain, and airports I had never seen. Bluefield's airport is tricky, for all the hilly terrain around there. DC was not amazingly comfortable, because the wind gusts were really throwing the plane around. I've learned to deal with that, and eventually, you develop a sense of when they are about to hit, so you react as they happen, rather than after.

From Bluefield, the plan was to get to a few other airports we hadn't seen, then find a good lunch. Next stop, Tazewell Co, VA. Gusty, turbulent landing, not a big deal. Touch and go, and off to Grundy, VA.

Now Grundy may well be the most potentially challenging airport I've ever visited. 2,200 feet long, 2,300-foot elevation. Steep drop-offs on all sides. Literally on the top of a peak. 2,200 feet of runway is plenty to work with, in a calm wind. With strong gusts and downdrafts potentially capable of dropping you below the airport and into terrain, you have to come in high, steep and careful. DC knew the landing would be beyond his own limits, so he gave it to me. It was certainly tricky. Downdraft came right on short final as I expected, bringing me from a high final, to right where I wanted to be. Two seconds after crossing the threshold though, an updraft caught me somewhat unexpectedly, and I had to fight it a bit. Then a crosswind gust caught hold, and I had to fight it again. Landed, and immediately took off again, this time toward Lonesome Pine, VA.

Lonesome Pine was our intended lunch stop, so we taxied in and parked. Nice place, nice folks. Very much off the beaten path. The beaten path is nowhere even close to this place. The lunch was a five-minute walk down the road, and we needed to stretch anyway, so we didn't mind.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Post From Richard in Dwight's absense.

First and foremost, let me make clear, there is good news to follow only, bad things have not happened because I am writing this little quib in Dwight's absense. Having said that, I just wanted to jump in here to write a short note about Dwight, and to let everyone who follows his blogs that he is doing Ok, but. . . . the plane he was flying in today had a hard landing, and they are spending the night in Tenn.

He should be back tomarrow, and I am sure he will update you all on the details, its quite the story.

So for all who are curious about why no postings from Dwight by now, worry not and sleep well knowing our friend is fine !!



Hello again, it's Ruth the kiwi. Thanks for replying to my comment! I find that I'm much better with the theory stuff as a student and I an study and ask questions when I need help- so far I've sat and passed Flight Radio, Human Factors and Air Law, and would be up to Met(Weather to Fly)if I was continuing. My main problem is that I'm not your typical student - I'm 51 and female LOL! And I have never had any prior involvement with aviation. I love flying although I lack in confidence in my practical abilities. I'm really interested too, to read things from an instructors side. So, I hope you don't mind if I continue to comment and I can also tell you about some of my lessons if you would like me to.


Ruth, I'm glad to know this can help, and please feel free to continue commenting. I started this whole thing in order to give a little insight into the instructor's viewpoint. So if it helps, that makes me happy.

I don't know the demographics of flight students elsewhere, but I have had a wide variety of students myself. Ages from 11 to 75. I have a current student who is a 48 year old female.

As for confidence, there are two factors that will help you there: knowledge and experience. I remember when I was a student, and had to fly into a control-tower environment solo for the first time. I knew I might get confused, so before the flight I actually wrote out a script of everything I expected to happen, and what to say. I stumbled at times, but eventually I got better. That is the nature of the learning process.

For experience, there is nothing quite so useful as getting out of your comfort zone, and into new situations, in a relatively controlled environment. This is why I am strongly in favor of visiting new places as often as possible. The student that I am taking on this long flight today realizes that. Every new airport we visit gives him something more to draw on for future flights. Every uncommon procedure or different traffic pattern helps just a little bit.

You will notice a few differences in terminology, and probably a few different types of procedures when comparing aviation in the U.S. to New Zealand. If something I say is confusing, please ask me to clarify. If you have questions, feel free to ask.


Southwestward Ho

Today's plan is to cover the southwestern portion of Virginia. Almost the whole route will be mountainous, some higher elevation airports are in there, but nothing to worry about. I have not often been out that direction driving, and almost never while flying.

Looks like a good day to do it though. The current route plan will take us to nine airports, starting in Bluefield, WV, then eight others in Virginia. 487 nautical miles, as planned. Planning software says 4 1/2 hours, but it doesn't take into account the time spend in a traffic pattern, or taxiing. So I figure on closer to 5 1/2 hours. Add a good lunch somewhere, and we should be gone for nearly 7 hours.

We may have to make a couple stops along route just to stretch though. The seats in that plane are not the most comfortable, which is a shame, because the plane carries 8 1/2 hours of fuel. If we feel good and the weather stays good, there is a route that would add seven more airports, but only 80 more miles, and would take us into Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina also.

Monday, July 25, 2005

6PM. Still 99 degrees. Density altitude got up to 4,000 even, so that is a new high for my time around here.

Tomorrow morning, I had scheduled to fly with the airport manager. He is a 900-hour pilot, but hasn't flown much in several years. He had to postpone, so that leaves more time for the trip DC and I are planning. The goal is to cover every airport in southwestern Virginia tomorrow, and find somewhere with a good lunch. If there is time, we may add a couple airports in West Virginia, North Carolina or Tennessee.

What to buy, what to buy.....


Current temperature: 99
Current heat index: 113
Current density altitude: 3,800 feet

Those tie the highest numbers I remember seeing here in the five years I've been in Virginia. I should be heading off to Hot Springs, VA, which is already at 3,792 feet, but has a current density altitude of 6,000. Would be good to test a plane for some future high-elevation airports.

Scott came by for a few minutes not long ago. He and Jay are the owners of the aircraft here. Good guys to work for. He had to drop off some items for me, most importantly a usb memory stick, so I can more easily get him the billing data. For security purposes, the computer housing all the important secret stuff is not connected to the internet. So that makes my life a little easier.

He also updated me on the status of the next plane we are getting. A Diamond DA42 TwinStar. We are all excited about that, and only wish it would show up sooner. We went with the Lycoming engines, mainly for speed, and availability of maintenance personnel who are familiar with those engines. It looks like the cruise speed will be right about 200 knots. Not as efficient as the turbo-diesel engine version, but a bit faster.

What Scott really wants is a Pilatus PC-12. I got him convinced of that a while back, when we flew one. I managed to get him some time in the front seat, and he loved it. He might think about settling for a Piper Meridian though. Hey, either one would be fine by me. I won't complain any.

The other day while I was off to Williamsburg, he and Jay took the DA40 DiamondStar to Tangier Island. As fun as that was, he gets excited thinking that the same trip in the TwinStar would be only about 40 minutes. Hey, that excites me too, especially if I get to go along on the trip. I will get to train him in the plane, and fly him on business trips, so I will get my share of cockpit time. Too bad it will still take at least 5 more months to get the airplane.

11 AM. Already 90 degrees. Heat index 100. It isn't supposed to be that hot here. It is supposed to be a good 5 degrees cooler here than in NC where Rich is. But its only 83 there.

I decided against flying for lunch today, in favor of air conditioning.

Debriefed with Joe over the phone. He accomplished his long solo cross-country flight yesterday, but when he returned, I was already gone to Williamsburg. Joe had been lacking a little bit of confidence- in this case, stemming from his recognition of how many ways something can go wrong on a flight.

But he managed to fly to Charlottesville, VA, then Martinsburg, WV, and back, and enjoyed himself the whole way. Now his confidence is up, his knowledge is good, and his flight skills are almost ready. His checkride may happen in the next week or two, and might still be under 50 hours total. Really good regardless, but great considering there was 7 hours of flying that we did purely for fun along the way, which was beyond the requirements and his needs. Save for that, he would be going to checkride at about 42 hours.

Nothing really scheduled today. I suppose that would be good to have a rest. I'm hoping to find someone who wants to wander off and find a good lunch somewhere. I'm game for anywhere. Yesterday afternoon was busy enough, I could use a break.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Things I Don't Understand

  1. Why some people will repeat themselves over and over and over, saying the same thing repeatedly until you have to actually stop them from talking, in order to speak a word of reply to the questions they just asked.
  2. People with zero sense of direction. I don't mean getting turned the wrong way around on a back road at night, and being confused. I'm referring to those who I am convinced could get lost in the woods behind their own houses.
  3. The inner workings of the female brain.
  4. The total inability of some people to follow very simple directions.

I'm working on all of the above. But number four in the list is the specific one on my mind at the moment. I flew with Mr. Complication this evening. Though I may have to change his name to "Mr. Confusion." Always interesting, sometimes manages to wear me out. Introduced simulated instrument flight this time, and he did better than most do. Thats a relief. More often than not, I have to recover the plane within a minute or two, after first introducing it to a student.

His problem right now is that he hasn't managed to synthesize a full package of skills. He can manage through each individual skill by itself, but putting them all together in an attempt to fly a standard traffic pattern is a bit much for him. So his homework tonight is to write down each step of the process, and try to armchair fly, while sitting at home.

But back to the things I don't understand. I guess you could say there are three types of people in the world:
  1. Those who have an inherent grasp of which way to turn a knob for "up" or "down" (or alternately, which way to turn a wrench for "on" or "off").
  2. Those who get it wrong a few times, but start to figure it out.
  3. Those who manage to get it wrong so consistently and repeatedly over a long period of time that they completely skew the statistical probability curve.
I like to think I'm part of the first group, though I surely fall into group two sometimes. Those in group three intrigue me the most. I think it is also that group which manages to baffle me the most regularly. I recall one student years ago who, whenever it was time to put the key in the magneto switch, tried it the wrong way every time. These are very standard-looking keys. One edge is full of curves and bumps, the other edge is smooth. Somehow, he would get it upside down every time. I started observing this trait, and became fascinated. He was nearly finished with the private license the first time I ever saw him guess correctly. Several time, I showed him how to tell which way, but it really didn't change the results.

I don't have a problem with it. I get a little frustrated sometimes, but more often, I am just trying to find a way to more effectively communicate. Everybody has a different learning style, and my job is to find it and work through it.

So Mr. Confusion is an interesting case. We have a lockbox where the keys to the aircraft are stored. Simple 3-digit code. On our first lesson, I explained to him that the code was part of the tail number for a specific aircraft, and told him which one. This explanation has been sufficient for every other person who has wanted into that box.

Mr. C, though, may need some other sort of explanation. He has decided that the code derives from whichever aircraft we are flying on that particular day. Somehow, magically, the code differs depending on which set of keys he intends to retrieve. I'm at a loss. I really didn't expect this to be the kind of thing I would have to explain 5 times.

So every time, I re-explain how it works. And I begin to wonder: if this is confusing him, how will he handle VOR's or cross-country flight planning. I guess we just have to wait and see.

Food, as an excuse to fly

Came in today to endorse Joe for his long solo cross-country. Had a student for 6pm, but that was it. DC came in and wanted to get a late lunch, so we got in the CT and headed to Williamsburg, VA.

Well, thought we were heading out. We got on the runway and accelerated, but the airspeed indicator was barely indicating anything. Aborted the takeoff. A little bit of checking, and we tried again, same result. Called the mechanic. He had removed the EFIS, because it was not working properly. Turned out, he had not bothered to close up the tube that runs from the pitot tube, to the airspeed and the EFIS. So I had to dig around behind the panel, find the open line, and tape it up. Then all was good, and we were able to head out again, this time with no problems.

I've been there for lunch a few times. Excellent food, and they did not disappoint today, except for one thing: they were out of seafood bisque. Whenever I've been there, that's what I want. Really good stuff. It is a tiny bit expensive for my personal budget, but DC pays anyway. On the return, we made a slight detour through Orange County.

He is now on board with my plan to get to every other public airport in Virginia that I haven't yet visited. Also with my general plan to find places to fly to, for the official purpose of getting a meal. He gets a lot out of flying to different airports. Sometimes he needs to simply absorb the whole process, without hurrying to learn everything he can on any given flight. My list of remaining airports has shrunk to 12 paved and 3 grass strips. Next trip to Tangier, we will hop across the bay and knock off one paved and one grass before returning. Tuesday, the plan is to do a proper tour of the entire southwestern portion of the state. Then all that will remain are a couple places just south of Washington.

Three hours of flying, a delicious lunch, and home in time to be ready for my 6pm flight.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

That 15 minutes of rest turned into 5 minutes. Before I knew it, my next student was here. Another BFR. This one, was the Cessna 182 pilot that had tried to schedule a couple other times, but had to cancel because his plane's annual inspection was not complete.

I was happy to see there were no real issues to deal with. All went well, and we completed the whole thing with just barely enough time for me to run to the cafe before they closed.

And I got to add one to the list of models I've flown.


Finally got a moment to breathe. A short 15 minutes of break before the next thing.

Neither of the student cross-country flights got to go. Both decided against flying through the haze. That left me 20 minutes to get ready for my next student- a helicopter student who is wanting to add on the fixed-wing rating. He showed up early, and wanted a change of plans. He brought his father along, to get a flight review. That changed things a bit, and made the schedule a little tighter. His father had barely flown in 19 years. That is usually a siren, warning me to remind the individual that the one hour of flight and the one hour ground review are minimums. This guy did well though. I would wager, if I put him in his own Grumman, he'd fly it easily. So this week, he gets to study up on the new airspace definitions (things have changed a lot since 1986). Next Satruday we do the ground portion, and get him endorsed.

A Tale of Two Students

Busy morning here, if the skies clear up. Mrs. C will again be attempting to do a solo cross-country. If I endorse her. That is still a question in my mind. I am confident she can do the actual flight, but not so confident in her planning abilities. And I would wager she hasn't worked up any practice forms, to get proficient. I'm going to hazard a guess that for the first hour, she will work slowly, coming up with half a plan, done poorly, probably some numbers picked at random (cruise speed) and some mixing of statute and nautical distances. Then I will get to explain (again) why this stuff is important, explain (again) why she has to do this right, before I'm going to let her wander off.

Then I have a different student about to do his cross-country too. He will manage to figure out his own planning, weather issues, decision making, and work through everything himself. All i'm really there for is to reassure him that his decisions are sound.

I could chalk those differences up to any number of things: educational background, experience, etc. But the reality is, the only significant difference is motivation. They both have other jobs, as do most people who train to fly. They both have families, children. However, one of them actually takes the time to study, looking for issues that I might not have addressed with him, trying to better himself. The other just wants to get the result. No sense of why the process is important.

Instructors see a wide variety of students, and every one of them struggles with something. I really want both of them to succeed, but I have a suspicion that only one of them will.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Friends dropping by

Old friend dropped by all of a sudden not long ago. I knew him from here, when he was training for his flight instructor rating. He is instructing at Milton, WV now, and trying to find some multi-engine time. Also with him, was a student of his. She was at Embry-Riddle herself, until recently, after deciding that it was a big waste of her money. So she found a local school with a good instructor, and is doing better. (That's yet another ERAU student who has told me the same thing about the place.)

John and I used to commiserate. He was stuck in a package program at the school next door, and not getting much benefit from it. Sometime soon, I need to borrow a plane and make the trip up his way.

Current stats

Current temperature: 94 degrees
Current humidity: 518%
Feels like: 426 degrees
Personal status: enjoying the air conditioning.


I got back to the office, and suddenly had many things to do at once. Always fun. I may manage to get lunch at some point before dinner. The student did really well. Weather had just gone up to 4 miles when she came back from breakfast, so we headed out.

For an 8-hour student pilot, she is rather good. For an 8-hour student that hasn't flown in 8 months, that is impressive. I am sure that some of the simulator training she's done has paid off there.

I don't understand what she could have done that would have caused instructors to yell at her in the cockpit. Oh well. At least she had fun today, and understands that maybe flying can be enjoyable after all.

Fog, Nerves and Choice of Schools

I was beginning to get hopeful about the 8:00 flight. At 7, we had less than 1/4 miles visibilty. At 7:15 it was 1 mile. at 7:45, 2 1/2. She showed up, and I figured it would be clear by the time we did the preflight. Not so. Back down to 2 miles, and 200 broken.

So we talked for a while, figuring it would burn off any time. She admitted to being nervous about the flight. She's from around here, but attends Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. One of the top schools around. Still, it intrigues me that of every ERAU student or grad with whom I've conversed, I've never met one that really thought it was a great school.

Most, I've noticed, never feel that they are really cared for as customers. Scheduling issues are not dealt with properly, the instruction involves too much unnecessary pressure placed on the students, and they don't accomplish ratings quickly.

I guess to each his own. There is certainly a market for that, as they have proven by their continued existence. But I don't really get it. Having never been there myself, I suppose it would be unfair for me to automatically agree with the claims I've heard. But after hearing it numerous times, I have to lend some credence to those statements.

The one advantage their students seem to have over others, from my perspective, is solid in-depth knowledge. But that doesn't mean other people can't do as well elsewhere. I became knowlegeable , not by having that thrust upon me, but because I was determined and motivated. I wanted to know far more than the oral exam would ever test. And that is all it really takes: motivation, and access to resources. I feel comfortable discussing regulations, aerodynamics, weather, anything really, with experienced examiners, FAA inspectors, anybody. And it isn't because I spent $100,000 on a top-end school. It is, in fact, despite having attended a sub-par school. It always comes back to motivation.

So, my student and I wait to see if the weather will clear. I think she is less nervous now that we've taken the time to talk a bit. Learning to fly is stressful enough, there really isn't any need to add stress.

Supposed to be flying at 8am today. I don't think it will happen. As of 7am, we are fogged in, less than a quarter mile visibility. It will probably be clear by 9, but I think the student has some other plans that interfere at a later time.

Hopefully, today will involve another flight to retrieve lunch at another different airport.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Another good day

I like to get a solid four or five hours of flying in a day. Makes me feel like I've actually done something. So today was nice. After that long weekend at the beginning of the month, I'd had trouble getting back into the groove of it.

That seems to be my thing. I'm a high-inertia system. If I'm sleeping, I like to keep sleeping. Once I'm up, that is where I want to be. When working, I keep doing that. But once I get a vacation, I have trouble ending that vacation.

So I'm back in the groove here. Flying the CT-SW is keeping it fun, and giving me just that little extra bit of income that will help buy new tires for the car before long. Or that fuel pump which I think may be bad. Or the replacement timing belt which is hopefully not going to fail just yet.

We are going to explore as many different hundred-dollar hamburger options as posible inthe coming months. That will be fun too. Airports I haven't visited yet. All the time, getting paid to have fun. What a life.

Mmmmm, Iced Mocha

Thunderstorms were not predicted, at least until 5pm. But around 4, it started. All the better that we didn't extend the pleasure trip. I was half tempted to convince him we ought to go visit the Outer Banks. As it was though, we got back with an hour to spare before the storm hit. And what a storm it is. Just starting to dissipate now.

When it was starting to rumble, Brett from the medevac crew next door mentioned it to me, so I'd have time to close the car windows. Seconds later, it was pouring. While still outside, lightning struck the runway, about 4,000 feet away. Time to be indoors.

One of the others from the medevac had already made a run to Barnes & Noble, to get a supply of coffee-related beverages, and she had offered to get me something. So now, I'm watching the light show from a safe, indoor vantage, and enjoying my drink. Mmmmmmmm.

Oops, that wasn't the airport I was thinking of.

This morning started off quickly. Since 7:30, it has been nonstop. Not that I'm complaining in the least.

It started with two hours of ground instruction, with Mrs. Complication. We went through the sectional chart, airspace definitions, equipment requirements, VFR requirements, etc. I think I would almost have preferred it if she had simply not studied at all. Instead, she did study. Badly. Slightly more than half of the little bits of data are up there in her head somewhere, but she has no idea which piece of data to retrieve for any specific question. I will hazard a guess that our next ground session- intended to be on aerodynamics and systems- is likely to get interesting in the same manner.

As soon as that travesty of a ground session was complete, my student with the light sport plane was ready to fly. We hadn't decided where to go or what to do. He thought it might be a litle too soon to go back to Tangier already, but asked my opinion on any other on-airport restaurants in reasonable range. Funny, I had just been thinking that a trip to Chesterfield, VA might be in order. They have a nice buffet there, and it is cheap. Six bucks and change.

The flight down was nice and relaxing. I still enjoy the perspective: driving there would take a solid two hours. The flight is about 40 minutes. That plane only has 100 horsepower, making it the least powerful engine I've ever flown. But it does get up and go. We were clocking a solid 125 knots (144 miles per hour) for the ride down.

This student has a tendency to end up too high on final approach, and he did not disappoint. We crossed the threshold, still a solid 300 feet up. I'm glad to see him dealing with it well though. When he recognized the situation, he went right into 40 degrees of flaps, and a solid sideslip. He was ready to abort the landing and try again if needed, but he got down with plenty of room to spare.

The original plan was simply to fly around a little, get some lunch along the way, and get home eventually. From Chesterfield, he was wanting to take the long way home. So we picked a couple airports at random, and headed off. First stop was Halifax County, NC.

After another too-high approach, and successful slip to landing there, we cruised westward across Lake Gaston and Kerr Lake, ending up at Tuck Field. He gave me that landing. On the ensuing takeoff, the plan was to head on back home to Shenandoah, but I asked if he'd like another landing, and after he agreed, I had him make a slight detour up to Farmville, VA. He accomplished that one, perfectly on the proper glidepath.

Then it was time to get back home. Now, one of the great things about that plane, aside from simply being fun, is that it doesn't burn much fuel. At lower cruise settings, you can have it under four gallons per hour. Compare that with a Cessna 172, which flies a little slower, but burns about double that. The low fuel burn allows you to get amazing range from it, before needing to refuel. We flew over four hours, a time that in most small planes would have required a fuel stop. But we were still above half tanks. It has an 8 1/2 hour range.

We stayed low- 2,500 feet, to keep away from the little cumulus clouds building, and expected to need to shoot through Afton Pass near the minimum safe altitude. Outbound, we had caught a couple little clouds at 3,500 feet. On the return, it was a non-issue.

Only after parking the plane, and returning to my office, did I realize that I had never visited Halifax before. I usually keep mental note of where I have been, so I can add new locations when possible. And throughout the flight there, the approach, landing, taxi, and departure, it never occurred to me.

For my student, all four of those airports were new. Each one was a chance to get outside his familiarity zone, and learn something new. So chalk that up as a successful day.

Morning, Already

All too soon, morning is here. In a few minutes, Mrs. Complication will walk in the door, and we will see if she remembers any of the groundwork we did before. Sectional chart, airspace regulations, aerodynamics, etc.

After I'm done with her, perhaps a flight somewhere for lunch, in the CT-SW.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Key Numbers

Hours flown today: 3.1
Number of simulated emergency situations given: 4
Hours spent at the airport: 15
Hours until my next student: 9
Expected hours of sleep tonight: 6

Finally, a clear night

After about 10 attempts at finding an evening for finishing Joe's night requirements, it appears we finally have one. We are going to fly earlier, finishing his simulated instrument work, unusual attitudes training, and all that fun stuff. Then on with the night flying.

I always enjoy the night flying, because the air is generally calm and often, there is very little traffic in the local area. Tonight, I get to have some fun too. Joe will be getting his share of simulated system failures and emergency scenarios. Lots of fun.

Cockpit Management

Every time I fly a Piper Archer, I get the same feeling. It is a nice plane; I really enjoy them, but it always feels as if we are at a higher angle of attack than we really are.

I flew one today with a student. He is starting to work on the commercial license. He will have to get into a complex plane for some official training, but his deal on the Archer is good, so we use that for now.

That problem comes up especially when we perform the simulated engine-failure spot landing. He brings the nose relatively high on short final, and my first instinct is that we are near stall. Then we come down fine, and end up floating too far in the end. I recognize the deal, it is just odd to me that I still get that feeling after 30 or 40 hours in make and model. I don't get that in any other model.

He has a significant amount of learning to do before we can think of a checkride, but he knows that. The main problem is cockpit management. If he gets distracted, or behind the plane, he forgets things. Doesn't follow his checklist. I see that a lot when we fly on instruments too.

For most students, that problem tends to develop from one cause: not believing he is really the pilot in command. Students that spend all their time with an instructor, never flying by themselves, or those with instructors who take over the plane too often, often end up there.

One of the best things an instructor can do for that kind of student is to sit still. As long as safety is not in jeopardy, often the student will do better to be forced to deal with the situation without help from the guy in the other seat. I know a few instructors who are overly prone to taking over when things get even slightly out of whack, and more often than not, lack of confidence is what the student learns.

I have flown with this student now, about 6 hours, and that is the plan. Force him to deal with everything.

Wakey Wakey, Eggs and Bacey

Early morning, as usual. Was here at 7. Joe is supposed to be coming in to plan and execute his last solo cross-country. But this morning we are fogged in. The only question is if there is time to complete it after the fog lifts, but before the thunderstorms have a chance to form.

Meanwhile, I have a flight scheduled for 11am. I was planning to use the day as an opportunity to go enjoy some flying on my own, but students come first. Maybe tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Back to the air

After the pre-thunderstorm landing, my next student showed up, but not to fly. He is smarter than that. So we talked a little bit about the prep we will be doing for his checkride. Hopefully we can get that completed by the first week of August. I had a few minutes to spare to relax before the last student of the day. Mr. Complication.

He is starting to come around, and may do ok. He won't be setting any records for fast learning, but with a little bit of focus, he will get there. We spent our time going back over the slow flight, stalls, steep turns and all that stuff.

I always enjoy flying an hour or two after a storm. As long as the cloud cover doesn't prevent it, you end up with good visibility, and often very calm winds. So it went alright. I don't often have students that confused over certain simple things though. Communication will be a tricky one for him. That will take a lot of work.

And so, my 13-hour workday is complete, and I get to sleep a little to ready myself for another one.

Timing is everything- Reprise

METAR KSHD 1905Z 0118G24 1 1/2SM +TSRA 003SCT 043OVC

That was the weather as of a couple moments ago. Translation for those who don't know aviation terminology: nasty. One and a half miles visibility (half of the minimum required for visual flight), winds really gusty, heavy rain, thunderstorm.

A mere 3 minutes before that, I was still airborne, trying to make it in quickly, knowing what was coming. My student with the CT-SW invited me to lunch at Tangier Island, and I couldn't refuse that kind of deal. The flight out there is about a hour and a half, and was gorgeous. Not many clouds- just some scattered stuff a good distance above. Just enough to give us a little bit of shelter from the sun. Tangier is an interesting place. No automobiles there- not really any need, since everything is in reasonable walking distance. There are bicycles and golf carts. Instead of that though, we just took a nice, leisurely walk for a few minutes, and arrived at what appeared to be a good seafood restaurant.

We were not disappointed. I'd never had soft-shell crab before, and I've fallen in love with it. He said it was among the best he'd ever had. We decided that we will have to go back there again really soon.

On the return, we headed back out over the expanse of water. You always have to evaluate properly before flying a single-engine aircraft over large amounts of water. Even with the nice glide of that plane, we were facing several miles of swimming if the engine died. We couldn't climb either, because there is restricted airspace above. We did get to shoot through one restricted area, since it was not active, saving about 15 minutes.

I guess, in retrospect, it was a very good thing we saved that time. We caught a little bit of rain on the return, between Lake Anna and Louisa, but nothing serious. Right back out of it in under a minute. But we were mainly watching two cells of interest on the weather overlay in the GPS. One, we were skirting to the north, not really any big deal. A good chunk of yellow on-screen, but we would pass by it quickly enough.

The one that kept my attention was barely north of Shenandoah at the time, and showed red in some places. It hadn't fully developed west of home, but we knew it was only a matter of time.

Crossing the mountains is always the first concern. As clouds begin to form a little lower, you have less and less room to make it across. At 4,000' MSL (above mean sea level), the crossing is no big deal, as long as the engine doesn't quit at an inconvenient time. If you have to drop to 2,500', there are only one or two places along the ridge to get across, and both can be hairy with a bit of turbulence.

I was watching the main thunderstorm, which loomed large, having already developed a well-defined anvil at the top. From 10 miles out, we could see that the heavy rain was within 2 miles of the airport. At that point, I began to expedite, but there is only so much you can do to speed up in turbulence before risking structural damage to the plane. My student had already offered me the landing, even though his atempt at Tangier had not been really pretty. Good thing too. These conditions were beyond his limits.

We made it to the downwind for runway 23, with the rain about a mile away. The weather decided that was the time to change wind direction. We'd flown the pattern expecting a direct crosswind, and on short final, it shifted. Suddenly, it was a ten knot tailwind component. (Essentially 25% of the stall speed). Meaning we would be touching down with over 50% more kinetic energy than a no-wind landing, and almost triple the energy we'd have had landing on runway 5. But there really wasn't time to go around to the other runway, so I just dealt with it.

Turned out I had an audience. Dena was covering the unicom desk, and a couple other friends were watching also, knowing that the wind was starting to get crazy. I guess you chalk it up to either concern for those involved, or a morbid desire to watch (we'll assume the former). Either way, I had several people watching, hoping it would go ok.

That little plane is just so small, any gust of wind tends to throw it rather well. A cross-wind component at the official limit of the plane, with gusts beyond the limit, makes for some fun. I actually managed a really smooth touchdown on the right main tire, and managed to hold it there for a few seconds. Dena congratulated me over the radio.

As we tied the plane down, the rain started. Moments after getting inside, the real deluge began. About three or four more minutes spent getting home, and we'd have had a much more adventurous flight.

Sitting around the office this morning, with not a whole lot to do until afternoon, except make a couple of phone calls. I had just finished telling Rich that I was contemplating a meal, but it was too late for breakfast, and too early for lunch. I was also thinking of finding someone to fly with me for lunch somewhere else.

About 10 seconds after that thought escaped my mind, my student with the CT-SW called. He thought it might be a good day to wander down to Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, and get a bite of seafood.

So, I get a good 4 hours of flight time, a trip to an airport I haven't visited yet, and a free lunch to boot. I'd say thats a good deal.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Practice Approaches

Went flying today with a student working on the instrument rating. He has done a few cross-country flights, but really needed to do some local work, and grasp the procedures involved. So we headed out to shoot approaches in the DA40.

Started with the GPS approach to runway 5 at Shenandoah. Quickly, I realized he was not getting it. After a little discussion of proper scanning and pitch-power issues, he started to come around. Then we did two ILS approaches, both executed reasonably well, and called it a day. But not before giving him a simulated engine failure. No surprise, just a means of getting him accustomed to the plane.

One of the ironic problems I face with that glass cockpit during training, is that it is somewhat difficult to simulate instrument failures. I can't just cover up an instrument. A real failure of any significance is difficult to imagine though, with all the redundancy built in.

Aircraft That I Will Never Be Able To Buy...

...of course, most aircraft fit that category.

A few weeks ago, Joe and I headed to Hampton Roads Executive Airport in Portsmouth, VA. The flights down and back served as additional cross-country training, and allowed us to see some nice airplanes on display there. It wasn't nearly as big a production as I was hoping, but still worth the visit.

Hampton Roads is where I trained for my private helicopter license nearly three years ago. I finally got the pictures back from Joe a couple days ago, so I thought I would share some of them.

Go to to check out the rest.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Former friends, part II

The changes lasted all of one week.

I didn't bother saying anything at that point. I had given him all I could justify. So I quietly worked on my other plans, and three months later, left. No notice, no phone call. As testament to how rarely he showed up, it took him almost a week to even find out.

Needless to say, there was a bit of quiet animosity at that point. Chris himself, wasn't the entire problem though. But as the owner, he bore responsibility for allowing the other problems to continue. Most of the other issues can be traced directly back to Tom, who was "helping." What Tom was really doing, was helping himself. He had sold the school to Chris two years before, but kept himself in a position to oversee the whole operation even afterward. He took flights on the side, and generally lined his own pocket. If Chris had only showed up now and then, he would have seen it. It only took another couple months after I left, before Tom orchestrated a forced buyout, which kept him pulling the puppet-strings, without any monetary interest in the company.

I think a good bit of Chris' anger was then directed back on Tom, leaving him perhaps a bit ambivalent about me. But we still hadn't spoken until today. No real issues. I guess a lot of that is water under the bridge. We both know there were problems. But that is all over and done. We can be friendly now.

We both suspect that the current owners will not succeed any better than he did, as long as Tom runs the place. Chris is working on dealing with his outstanding debts now, and looking into other areas of aviation. Maybe this time, a bit wiser about business, he will succeed.

Former friends, part I

We didn't make the flight today. For what amounted to an unnecessary trip that would be accomplished any time, I didn't want to deal with heavy IFR, and a return through thunderstorms.

I did catch up with Chris- the deposed former owner of the school where I formerly worked. Until this morning, we hadn't spoken in 11 months. He had held a grudge for a while, though I suspect it was more due to his frustrations with being near failure of the business, than directly due to me.

I had been working there for a while- even before he bought the school. He had been an instructor there when I was still a student. He is a talented pilot, and had been, at one time, a very good instructor. But the business end of the place wore him down.

Some of the problems came about by trying to cut corners, in an attempt to save a few dollars here and there. I recognized that problem quickly, only because I had been taught a very poignant lesson in a marketing course I took many years ago (in preparation for what almost led to pursuit of an MBA). I had been in a marketing simulation game, and due to having a couple students drop out, I was playing the 4-student-per-team game by myself. I was doing well, and had a chance to win the class competition, but I tweaked the product just enough that I lost the market segment I wanted. I came in third.

Same kind of thing happens every day in the real business world though. Cutting corners usually happens when profits are low. But if you cut enough, you invariably remove one of the main reasons you have customers to begin with. Then the profits get even lower. The end result is usually a spiraling descent toward failure. That is what Chris was doing. Especially in a service-driven market, you can't cut those corners and survive for long.

Those problems are what I believe led him to a bit of depression, and a tendency to not bother showing up at all for days at a time. He wanted other people to deal with his problems. I could understand his mindset at the time, but I couldn't seem to get him past it.

During the spring of last year, I bought a Cessna 172 and kept it in the school, partly for the income, partly for the ability to more directly influence the business end of it. Not long after, I found myself making contacts with people who wanted something different: a school with new aircraft, and a different philosophy. We had some meetings, and our plans seemed to match well, so we continued discussion.

At the time, several of us were feeling the frustration of trying to get through to him, having met to discuss issues several times recently. I felt I had one last attempt to change things from within before ending my commitment to that school, and I met with Chris to lay it all on the line. I listed what I expected him to change, and explained that if he couldn't do that, I'd be leaving, possibly to compete against him. I wanted to make sure there could be no reason to blame me from that point on. It would be my last warning.

Bet & Breakfast

I was sitting here relaxing, deciding when to make this flight to Frederick, MD. Brett walked by and invited me to breakfast at the cafe in the airline terminal. Brett is part of the flight crew for PHI Helicopters, the company that performs air ambulance services locally.

Med-evac guys have an unusual life. They sit around all day long and wait. They spend hour after hour after hour sometimes, just waiting for a call. But many people don't know how to drive, so they get into accidents. That's when these guys get phone calls. Suddenly they go from bored to hurried.

This morning, fog prevailed around here, so they had nothing to do. Brett and a couple of the others were heading over to get breakfast and invited me, even buying mine. I seem to have a knack for getting people to buy my meals.

Brett is part of the crew, but not a pilot. We have had a number of discussions about getting a fixed-wing license, which he plans to pursue sometime after his upcoming wedding. Today, the breakfast conversation revolved around instrument ratings and instrument currency. I mentioned we could accomplish that on the school's helicopter flight simulator. During the course of discussion, he decided he might like a try at it.

This sim is not easy. I have watched experienced State Police Bell 407 pilots crash the sim, just trying to hover in visual conditions. The controls are impressively sensitive. So I told him we could do it, but I guaranteed I would make him crash inside of five minutes. He disagrees. So now, the bet is on. We haven't decided yet on the terms. I have to make it valuable, since I am supremely confident in winning. Maybe the price of a couple of their t-shirts though, just to be nice. We will see.

On the reliability of primary sources of information

Flight Service Stations are the official and primary source for pilots to get information regarding a flight. That being the case, I often wonder why more pilots don't complain about the level of service gained from that source.

If I plan to fly out of the local area of my departure airport, it is necessary to get a briefing from them, or I risk anything from unexpected weather to losing my license for failing to know about a temporary flight restriction. Given those high stakes, I am often disappointed at the failure of Flight Service to provide.

I have seen briefers do some amazingly stupid things, and nobody seems to ever get in trouble, except the pilots who believe them. I had a briefing not long ago, knowing I was going to a fly-in, and knowing ahead of time that a temporary control tower had been set up, and yet the briefer failed to mention anything about it. So I had to tell him. On another flight two weeks ago, I was heading to, ironically, Leesburg, VA. Instrument flight the whole way, since the weather was obviously instrument conditions. I filed an instrument flight plan. The briefer never bothered to mention that the runway lights were out of service, and there would be no instrument approaches going in there. I only found out halfway there, from the air traffic controller.

These are serious problems, and not restricted to small aircraft. Airline and corporate pilots don't have it any better. Several months ago, I was witness to an incident that nearly became a runway incursion accident, partially stemming from bad information that a briefer gave the pilot of a corporate jet. And who is at fault? No matter what the cause, it appears to be the pilot that always takes the blame. I have yet to hear of a briefer even being reprimanded.

Today wasn't really all that bad, but the briefer was either new at it, or uninterested. Not sure which, though I did get a very similarly disinterested briefing from the same guy a week ago. He did manage to come up with NOTAM's (Notices to airmen) all by himself. Not a bad briefing really, except that I am really not fond of having to repeat flight plan information multiple times. I've arrived at a point where I am so tired of bad briefings, I often just hang up when I hear the voice of a briefer that I know will not be helping me very well.

It isn't always that way, but this scenario is becoming much more common. Sometimes I get the feeling that the government is hiring briefers directly off the street, requiring only that they do, in fact, have a pulse and are capable of simultaneously sitting in a chair and answering a phone.

In the last month, I have received briefings from people who I am convinced know nothing about weather, people who can barely understand the English language, people who might understand it, but have trouble speaking it or understanding the written form, people totally uninterested in or incapable of providing assistance, and even one man who I am convinced was drunk at the time.

The majority of briefers are probably not so bad. But I have friends who have been violated for unintentional infractions that directly resulted from bad information given by a briefer. That situation seems to be growing more and more common, especially here, being less than 30 minutes of flight away from the heavily guarded airspace around Washington D.C.

Inside the Washington ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone), there are an average of 10 violations daily. The news only reports the occasional single-engine plane that wanders too close and causes panic in the streets of the Capitol. But these events happen every day. Many pilots have suffered heavy penalties for these violations, but only a few of those overseeing enforcement have any realization that it is not always the pilot's fault. I have two friends who are among those numbers, neither of whom posed any sort of imaginable threat, both of whom had to jump through all kinds of hoops in order to beg the government to graciously allow them to keep flying.

The latest trend, which should make all pilots angry, is that if you have any sort of violation regarding the Washington ADIZ, regardless of cause, you will get a bare-minimum 30-day suspension. One friend was violated not long ago there, and it was directly caused by a bad briefing from Leesburg AFSS. He had asked for the specific dimensions of the zone, so he could avoid it. Based on the briefer's statement, he was more than 5 miles clear of the space. Based on the actual dimensions, he was inside the space, and got in trouble for it. Even after it was obvious where the problem lay, he received no help. The FSS claimed that the Freedom of Information Act actually prevented him from being permitted to get a transcript of his own briefing, as proof that the briefer was at fault. The FAA, knowing all this, still violated him. He used the NASA form properly, and managed to keep flying, but now he is eliminated from that option for the next five years.

So I keep calling Flight Service every time I fly. I keep putting up with bad briefers and inadequate briefings, sometimes calling back in the hopes of getting better information from someone else. And I keep hoping that I'm not the next pilot to get violated.

The Juggling Act

I was looking forward to sleeping in at least until 7 this morning, but I got a phone call at 8 last night. I was just minding my own business, vegetating on the television to stage 13 of the Tour de France, watching Lance Armstrong and Company cruise along in no particular hurry.

But Mrs. Complication called. She needed me to fly her up to Frederick, MD this morning, to pick up her husband's airplane. Riding along, will be the former owner of the flight school I left a year ago. He hasn't spoken to me in almost a year now. Not really sure if he is still holding a grudge or what. His bigger grudge, justifiably- is the current manager of that flight school. He was the former owner before selling it to this guy, but he stuck around, and frankly, caused problems. He is crooked. Takes money on the side, really doesn't look out for the interests of the school. And he orchestrated the whole buyout scheme, while he was supposed to be working for this guy. Perhaps that alleviates the irritation this guy feels toward me. I was justified in doing what I did, but I know he didn't see it that way.

Looking at the current weather, and the forecast, it appears I will have to make this trip IFR. A chance I will have to leave here in near-zero visibility, in fog. Fog all along the route. I'm thinking we should move the trip back a little in the day, just for safety. I have no problem doing it, but in a single-engine plane, you take a risk anytime you don't account for the possibility of engine failure at any point in the flight. In fog, you are landing totally blind.

So, we will see. This time of year around here, it is always a juggling act, between morning fog and afternoon thunderstorms.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Economists & Weather Forecasters, part IV

That one storm was dissipating by the time we landed, but there was more on the way. If we'd had enough fuel, we could have turned around and gotten out of there before anything significant got too close. But we were down to minimum fuel for the return, having exhausted an extra half hour while holding. Minimum fuel, with a good chance of vectoring for storm avoidance, meant I was refueling there.

Once we had fuel, I checked the radar, and decided it was not a good idea. A particularly nasty storm was moving our way, and one was building in the middle of the return route. Staying there, we risked the possibility of damaging winds and even hail, but I'd rather see those from the ground than in flight. I called the school, just to let them know I would likely be extremely late returning. The owner essentially told me I was a chicken for not going. I don't take too well to someone trying to pressure me, and that was no exception. (That was one of the characteristics of that school which eventually caused me to leave and start a competing school on the other end of the same hangar).

At this point, I was getting frustrated though. The student was wearing on my nerves with his total disregard for everything I had specifically instructed him to do. Every little thing he did was starting to grind on me. Staring at the forecast, I realized that we stood a chance of being stuck there several hours, if not overnight. I even entertained the notion of renting a car and driving the 5 hours back home, just to avoid having to deal with him any longer. I'm generally a very patient instructor, but he was hitting all the wrong nerves.

A cooler mind prevailed though, and I found a hole in the weather after another two hours. The return was thankfully nowhere near as eventful. But I finished the day with a strong appreciation for gut instincts, and a firm grasp of how inaccurate forecasts can be.

I still maintain, that weather forecasters have the easier job. No lost income, no real danger to the job. Maybe I should become a meteorologist.

Economists & Weather Forecasters, part III

This guy was not especially good at controlling all three axes of flight at the same time. So we spent a good bit of time simulating a rollercoaster ride. I took over a few times, in order to avoid incurring the wrath of Washington Center's air traffic controllers. When our approach clearance came, lo and behold, it was not the approach my student expected.

So I let him fumble around for a minute or so, totally confused. All we needed was about a 30-degree turn to the right to go straight to our initial approach fix. After he managed a few lazy turns in either direction, followed by a complete 180, I was impressed, but I took over anyway. Our exceedingly patient controller called though, recognizing that it was an instruction flight, and instead of complaining at me, said they had a Cessna Citation that needed to get into Lewisburg quickly. I was happy to take their request to put us into a holding pattern.

We took the necessary instructions, including the holding fix, altitude, length of the legs, direction of turns, and the EFC (expect-further-clearance time). I was happy for the chance to work on holds with the guy, but I was also getting mildly concerned about the clouds. In the previous half hour they had gone from scattered to broken, and turned dark.

Another 15 minutes went by, and we were still holding, this time in the middle of a relatively minor thunderstorm (if there is such a thing). Then I noticed that our EFC time had passed. Then I discovered that we were not able to contact the controller.

So our status was, that we were in a small single-engine plane, in a holding pattern above an overcast layer of clouds, beneath which were a bunch of mountains, in the midst of a thunderstorm, with no radios. After working for a couple minutes to see if there was a loose connection in the avionics, I concluded that static electricity from the storm was causing the problem.

As I was preparing to squawk 7600 (the code for lost communications), we broke out of a cloud, and managed to get contact with another plane, who relayed communications back to the approach controller. The approach went fine, though the student was unable to handle it by himself. We broke out low enough that a circling approach was out of the question. I'd rather land with a 6 knot tailwind than hit a mountain while maneuvering.