Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Land, Repeat, Repeat, Repeat, Repeat, Repeat...

DC and I flew today. The weather only allowed pattern work, but that was fine. Aside from a very hectic level of traffic, all went well. Instrument departures were being delayed up to 15 minutes, and there were often several waiting at one time. But we were listening to the approach controllers on the second radio, which helped us predict the IFR traffic.

Touch-and-go's can sure get done quick. We flew 2.4 hours, and logged 25 landings. The latest news on the retest is that it is now scheduled for the 18th, in Louisa, VA. That makes a world of difference for his comfort level, since we thought he would have to deal with Richmond International Airport instead.

His control has seen significant improvement in the last couple weeks, which has made me very happy.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Slightly humid

Rain. And rain. And more rain. And a little more still. That's about all that has happened the last week. I've managed a little bit of flying at least. A few hours here and there. Thursday was supposed to be DC's ride with the FAA, but we haven't heard back (it was a tenative date, with no specific appointment), and it looks like rain anyway.

So, not much of anything to tell. Thus is the life of a flight instructor. If I had a steady instrument student right now, we could be out plowing through the clouds right now. But nearly everything I have to do right now is visual, that kills off the income rather quickly.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Long & Winding Story

Yes, believe it or not, I'm still here. I had enough other stuff going on lately, that I just didn't have much time to devote to this. Sometimes I feel, if I can't take the time to make a post really good, then I don't want to post at all.

I've also been contemplating several things that would impact my spare time. I may try to get a part-time job at the unicom desk in the early mornings. I know the head linesman suggested I do it a few months ago, and at the time that was not the best option for me, but now it would work. It would likely be only a couple hours a day, maybe 5-7 or 5-8 AM. But that would fit well with my schedule. I'm generally here in the office by 7 or 8, and my commute between jobs would only be about a 2 minute walk.

DC is getting ready for his 709 ride. We think. The whole situation is so messed up, I don't really know where to begin.

The basic history: after the crash, I made the initial report to the FAA, then DC and I both submitted written narratives. Both of our narratives said basically the same thing: in the flare with 40 degrees of flaps, adding power gave an uncommanded response, which he tried to fix by aborting the landing. When I recognized the situation, I tried to fix it myself, but to no avail. I had to make a quick decision, and I preferred to crash the plane in a way I knew would let us walk away, than to try saving it and most likely make the crash a whole lot worse.

Our initial post-crash problem came in the form of an FAA investigator. This guy quickly struck me as the wrong person to be investigating. I had to explain to him what a sport plane is. I had to explain several things that- as a supposed professional- are incumbent upon him to know.

However, I didn't let that bother me at the time. Two days later, he investigated and came to a completely different conclusion. He decided that we had a hard landing, blew the nose tire, and created a gash in the runway, leading to loss of control. At first, I was a bit confused. I had to process that information. Memory can be unreliable. But before long, I knew for certain that my head wasn't just playing tricks on me. I can prove my case too, if allowed to do so. Basic knowledge of physics proves him wrong. Basic investigative techniques would have shown him the facts. A gash that deep and that long, made by a plane that small, would have had the plane coming to a stop on the runway. We would never have had the kinetic energy necessary to get all the way to the hill 200 feet off the runway, much less with enough speed to crumple the gear and flip us over at 35 knots.

We recognized that he decided on his version of the story, and that was that. So we waited for the NTSB report. When that came back, it was essentially a rewording of what my report to them said. It listed the flight as instructional (not quite, but I won't argue that point), and that made me pilot in command. So I figured if anyone would get retested it would be me.

A couple weeks ago, DC got a letter stating that he was to be retested. I waited for mine, but it never happened. Normally the FAA would rather go after the bigger fish, than pick on the small one. The investigator decided to completely ignore the NTSB's report, and stick to his own story. We are actually thinking that the investigator knows I would pass the retest easily, so he is going for the more likely failure.

To boot, the required subjects to cover during the retest have absolutely nothing to do with the situation that caused the crash. Testing him with an emphasis on knowledge of systems, does nothing to prove he was not proficient at controlling the plane. I also found out at that time, that this investigator is not a pilot. At all. Which means he has no real basis for truly understanding what happened.

So I found myself basically off the hook completely, and DC was getting everything thrown at him. That's when I decided to involve myself a little more deeply. I called the Richmond FSDO, to schedule his retest, and to talk. I was hoping to talk to the local director, who already knew our situation, and already had concern about the design and engineering standards of sport planes on the market. He was sympathetic. And he was out of town.

I did speak with another guy though. This was the same one who had sat in to observe my private helicopter add-on license 2 1/2 years ago. So I at least knew him. He also knows the owners of the school very well, so we have an established history of sorts. Thankfully, he has a litlte bit of sense. He is willing to test DC based on what he believes are the relevant subjects, and somewhat ignore the directive coming from Nashville.

Now, on to the next little wrench in the system. A retest is supposed to be performed in the same basic type of aircraft which we had used during the crash. In this case, a sport plane (and preferably a CT-SW). Therein is a major problem. We don't have one. The only one we had before, is totaled. We don't want another one. We don't want to buy one, or rent one, or borrow for that matter. That was just the third CT-SW ever built. (DC had flown in the long-wing version once before buying this one, and the flight characteristics were significantly different). So by now, there may be as many as 5-10 others in the country. There isn't a rentable sport plane anywhere around here. So it simply isn't possible. The only other reasonable option is to use the Diamond, since that is the only other model of aircraft DC has ever flown, and the only one reasonably available.

The funny part is, the FAA inspectors in Richmond have not been checked out in Diamond aircraft. So they can't perform that test on him... unless. Unless they get checked out first. And there are't many options for getting checked out, except for a little flight school up in the Shenandoah Valley, which happens to be the same place where yours truly teaches.

So I may have to fly to Richmond and teach all the FAA inspectors the plane, right before one of them hops in and tests a student of my own, in that very same plane, which has flight characteristics not remotely similar to the plane we crashed. This is a funny situation.

Some of this is speculation right now. He is tenatively scheduled for "about the 13th", but we haven't heard back. They were going to call me to confirm the date and discuss my coming down there to teach them about the Diamond.

Now, since it is a week and a half since I was advised I would hear from them, I am starting to wonder. I figure it is a small chance, but I know that the two district offices would have spoken to each other. I know that the head guy in Richmond is a highly experienced pilot and flight instructor, and is sympathetic to our situation, and that his agenda is to show that some of these sport planes are not engineered or tested nearly enough. I know that the investigator in Nashville is not a pilot, and I've sensed that he is likely inexperienced even at this. His agenda seems to be to insure that he doesn't look bad by having his version of the story questioned, so he would like to see DC fail.

I am halfway wondering if perhaps the Richmond office is trying to get the Nashville office to drop the retest requirement. That would be most excellent.

There's another reason it would be beneficial for the FAA to drop the case. Like I said, we have solid proof that the investigator's version of the story is false. (Including photos showing the runway scar we supposedly made, but which extends from the runway all the way over to the hangars, 1,000 feet from where we ended up). DC is a powerful man- much moreso than I can even fathom. He knows the Virginia governor personally, and several US senators. He has huge amounts of money and power. He's already told me that if this is just a reasonable retest, he will be fine, but if it becomes a witchhunt and he gets torched, he will start pulling strings and make sure they are seen to be ignoring our concerns. We believe we have a legitimate gripe here, and if the FAA ignores it, perhaps the next person that crashes one of these will not be so fortunate.

On the positive side of things: During the training DC and I have been doing, he has made some sudden leaps of abilities. His big struggle was the short-field landings. The other instructor he had finished his private license with, was teaching a usable, but not technically correct method for that landing. I wanted to get him truly proficient. This week, after exhausting the standard teaching methods, I decided to pull out a slightly different trick. I had him set up several miles out on final, and showed him the sight picture he wanted, and gave him a couple minutes to tweak the power for the descent angle he needed.

Now, that method isn't entirely uncommon for me to use. I like letting the student get stabilized. I use similar methods teaching instrument approaches- a very long final approach gives you plenty of time. DC really took to it well. At 75 years old, he admits to being a little slow to learn. But I spent the next hour and a half in utter amazement. I only demonstrated once, then he went on to perform the next dozen of them almost flawlessly. When he asked me to do one, so he could just watch, I had to admit that I wasn't sure I could do any better. (I did manage to, but not by much). Some of his touchdowns were within 10 feet of the spot. I just managed to put it within about 5 feet. Given 200 feet from the standards, he has no trouble now.

The real test was to see if he remembered it the next day. Five consecutive perfect short-field landings. He also told me that, for the first time in his flying, he felt actually proficient, and was finally really having fun. Up to this point, all his training had been work. Now, he could really smile. We spent some time applying his new grasp of power management and angle of attack, toward the other types of landings and maneuvers, and found similar improvements.

Wednesday, just as we were geting out of the plane, I watched a plane crash. A little yellow home-built tailwheel biplane. I started running toward it, but I was a couple thousand feet away, and the rescue trucks were rolling within 15 seconds of the crash, so I recognized that my help was not needed. The guy totaled the plane, but his personal injury was only the ego. What made it far worse, was that he had just finished spending 13 years building the plane, and this was its first landing. It appeared that he started to porpoise, and got a little hamfooted on the brakes. When a plane begins to porpoise, the solution is to add power, but he removed it. That made each bounce worse than the last. Finally, it turned a little nose-left, and nosed over. Pivoting on the top right wing section, it then flipped upside down and planted firmly, right on the edge of the runway. If nothing else, we are all just happy he was not injured.

So, thats about all for me today. We have a lot of rain happening here, so no real flying going on. Tomorow, I fly out to Manassas, VA for the day. Assuming the weather doesn't completely sock us in. Even on instruments, there is a limit.