"A mechanical voice says, 'Fasten seat belts.' The Sky Pony turns onto the runway and Myrtle is pressed back into her seat as the airplane surges forward. A few seconds later, she's off the ground and climbing steeply on her way to Lincoln."
Brien Seeley, President of the CAFE Foundation, opened last weekend's Sixth Annual Electric Aircraft Symposium by riffing on Garrison Keillor's homespun storytelling style with a tale of the year 2021 in which Myrtle, an elderly woman from Winona, Minnesota visits an old friend in Lincoln, Nebraska who needs her help. To get there as quickly and inexpensively as possible, she decides to take one of those new two-seat, all-electric, fully autonomous air taxies from a tiny "pocket airport" near her house. In this future, little airports like these dot the suburban landscape, making on-demand air travel easily accessible to millions of people in previously underserved communities, while advanced, electric airplanes make it affordable.
Brien's entertaining story laid out a bold vision for revolutionizing transportation, with a very aggressive timeline. It would be easy to dismiss his vision as mere dreaming if it weren't for last Summer's Green Flight Challenge, run by the CAFE Foundation at Santa Rosa Airport in California's wine country. As you've probably heard by now, team Pipstrel-USA.com won the challenge by achieving the equivalent of 403.5 passenger-miles per gallon—more than double the required efficiency. When the Challenge was first announced in 2009, nearly everyone said its goals were impossible, but both the Pipistrel and eGenius teams proved them wrong by far surpassing them.
This was so surprising mainly because no one expected the available battery technology to have enough energy density for the task. The Challenge demonstrated how fast this technology is improving, and I have no doubt that it will continue at this pace or faster in the coming decade. By 2021, a trip from Winona to Lincoln is solidly within the realm of possibility.
Many other advances will be required, however, to make this kind of on-demand, personal air travel possible, including ultra-quiet propellers and extremely short takeoff and landing (ESTOL) technology, which will probably require compact, powerful wheel motors to assist takeoff acceleration.
The biggie, though, is fully autonomous flight. It's an incredibly hard problem, and having worked with computers and software my entire adult life, I confess to finding the idea of entrusting my life to them, well, terrifying. Pilots understand that while the autopilot can often fly more smoothly than we can, it has no judgment. Anyone who's ever had to disconnect "George" to keep him from stalling the airplane knows that.
Fully autonomous autopilots will need to be able to see and avoid other aircraft and adverse weather, cope with unexpected conditions like clear air turbulence, and make all of the hundreds of decisions that throughout the history of flight have required the subtlety and sophistication of human judgment. But however improbable it may seem, lots of money is being poured into developing this technology and I have no doubt that it will eventually be perfected—and it will revolutionize transportation. (That is, if it can win over a skeptical public with a safety record superior to that of piloted aircraft.)
The benefits of the autonomous air taxi are beyond question: sustainability, accessibility, convenience, affordability, protection of passengers' "personal space"—the list goes on. The flights it makes possible will also introduce a whole new population to the incredible experience of travel by small aircraft.
There is one experience, however, that it will not make possible: the even more incredible experience of piloting a small aircraft. The challenge, the self-reliance, the satisfaction and fulfillment of being pilot in command will not be part of a Sky Pony passenger's experience. What will be the value of good old fashioned human skill and judgment in a world full of airplanes that can fly themselves?
Wait—isn't this an old Star Trek episode?
But there's also another possibility that I find myself considering: how many Sky Pony passengers will be inspired by their experience to become pilots themselves? Certainly far more people will be exposed to small aircraft travel, and the availability of affordable, reliable electric propulsion will make flight training and personal flying more accessible than ever before. Most of today's pilots were first bitten by the flying bug as passengers—that was certainly the case with me! So even for die-hard, control-freak pilots in command threatened by the specter of their own irrelevance, there's reason to hope.
No matter who's flying the airplane, I hope Brien's story comes true. We'll all benefit tremendously when it does.
Blue skies, Myrtle! We'll leave the runway lights on for you.
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Cruising at 10,000 feet under a high, broken cloud layer with occasional light rain, my parents, my wife Janet, Eddie Pippin, Canine Aviator, and I gazed out at towering Mount Shasta off to our right, spotlighted by shifting shafts of sunlight. The flight had been smooth and beautiful, and now after about two hours it was time for a tank switch and some quick math. I calculated how much fuel we'd burned so far and looked at the GPS estimate of our remaining time en route. Good—we were on track to arrive with more than an hour of fuel in the tanks—always a good feeling!
One of my main themes in this blog has been what I've come to call the observe-act-observe cycle, a process of continuous observation and informed action. There's nothing particularly new about this idea. "Observe-act-observe" is just a phrase that I find useful to remind myself to pay attention, allow what I observe to inform my actions, and notice their results. This works great for all kinds of situations, from learning new skills to keeping an eye on all the many variables that affect a flight—including critical items like fuel consumption.
It can be a challenge, however, in situations when I find it difficult to pay attention and be aware—and one of these situations has always been dealing with money. Most pilots seem to indulge in some degree of denial when thinking about money. We're painfully aware of the breathtaking rate at which airplanes siphon cash from our wallets, but because the prospect of not flying just doesn't bear considering, we turn a blind eye to the Hobbs meter and start the engine. I would never dream of taking an aircraft into the air without dipping the tanks and verifying that I had enough fuel to get to my destination with a comfortable reserve, but I can't say I've always taken the same care with my bank account.
I don't want to give the impression that I've been completely irresponsible. The only debt I carry is my mortgage. I pay my bills on time. I at least glance at my balances once a month. Still, I've let years of my life go by without sparing more than the absolute minimum time and attention required to manage my money. But at some point I could no longer deny the ugly truth: I'd been operating in the red and the fuel was running low. Fortunately, my primitive "money management" techniques were sufficient to prevent "cash exhaustion."
Now you might well ask how a responsible pilot in command could allow himself such a close call. Well, I'm pretty sure it's the same way that so many normally responsible pilots every year manage to run their tanks dry. Denial is a daunting force. As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."
On reflection, I've realized that my denial in this case stemmed from the belief that if I actually paid attention to my money, I would have to give up the things I most care about, like flying, so denial was the only way to keep doing those things. I made no distinction between money management and soul-crushing austerity. Of course I wasn't consciously aware of this reasoning. The challenge with beliefs like this is that they're unconscious and usually rooted in very old experiences. If I had been aware of it, I could have seen that my actions were actually taking me further from what I care about by squandering resources that might otherwise have been directed consciously and effectively.
So in the spirit of observe-act-observe, I've started taking a few minutes every evening to record everything I spent that day. It's turned out to be much easier and quicker than I expected, and the patterns that are emerging from the data have been extremely revealing. The news often isn't good, but it's an essential first step toward better decisions and making the most of all available resources. It's exactly the same process that I used that afternoon in the airplane to make sure I had enough fuel to get where I wanted to go.
The sun was setting as we circled to descend into the little valley where our destination, Ukiah, California, lay in the gathering dusk. As I taxied to the ramp and shut down the engine, I dutifully recorded the time and noted that we did in fact still have over an hour of fuel left in the tanks. Yes, that was a very good feeling indeed!
"Come on, come on…" I muttered aloud to myself as I stared intently at the "pylon," the intersection of two roads, off my left wing. I was practicing "eights on pylons" and was struggling to keep my wingtip on the pylon while maintaining coordinated flight, but try as I might, I kept falling behind. I knew that I was supposed to push the nose down to speed up in this case, but my altitude was already uncomfortably low. I must have chosen the wrong "pivotal altitude" to start the maneuver or the wind had shifted or… something! Whatever it was, I wasn't getting it, and I was starting to get frustrated.
The maneuvers for the Commercial certificate turned out to be harder than I expected, and despite all that I've written about the observe-act-observe cycle and the importance of mistakes in the learning process, for some reason I was still surprised by this. Old habits die hard!
In his column in this month's issue of EAA's Sport Aviation magazine, Brady Lane describes his own struggles to complete his Private Pilot certificate. He concludes that while flying itself is often easy, finishing something you've started is usually hard. This got me thinking about just what we mean when we say something is hard. I think we really mean that it takes repeated attempts before we start getting the results we want consistently. Put that way, it seems pretty obvious that the way to learn something hard is just to keep trying until you get it right. What could be simpler?
Well, it might be simple, but I've never found it easy. I'm chagrined to realize just how much harder I've made the learning process over the years by agonizing about how hard it is—by believing that finding something hard means that I'm deficient in some way. Thinking back on the low points in my flying career, the times when my confidence and enjoyment were all but gone, I can see how completely unnecessary were the frustration, anger, and general mental anguish I put myself through—just because something took time to learn.
For extra credit, I also realized how miserable I can become by comparing myself to others. It's so tempting to conclude that because someone else seems to be learning a skill more quickly than I am that it means I'll never learn it, or I'll never do it as well as they do. But the truth is that different people find different things hard—and they learn at different rates.
Sometimes I think that the competitive culture of military aviation, or the popular perception of it, has had a negative influence on civilian flight training. The military pits aviators against each other to deliberately wash out the slower learners so they can focus their training resources on the "top guns." This makes sense from an economic point of view if you're training warriors at taxpayer expense. But if you're paying for your own training to learn to fly for your own reasons, what difference does it make if you learn more slowly than someone else? It might take you longer and cost you more, but the only way you're going to "wash out" is by giving up. If you want that pilot certificate badly enough, you'll do what it takes to earn it.
Meanwhile, as of this writing, I still don't get eights on pylons. After many attempts, I'm out of ideas about what to try next. So I guess by my definition, that means they're hard—and I'm OK with that. I'll just schedule another lesson with my instructor Bill so he can help me see what I'm missing. I'll just keep trying until I can consistently do them well.
Thanks, Brady, for the reminder that "hard" is just a natural part of accomplishing anything worthwhile. And congratulations on the Private!
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"Ungh!" I grunted involuntarily as the Arrow plunked down unceremoniously on Reid-Hillview airport's runway 31R. That was supposed to be a "soft-field" landing. My session in the pattern wasn't going particularly well. While my takeoffs, airspeeds, and approaches were pretty good, the landings just were not coming together. There was no mystery about it. It had been a couple of weeks since I'd flown, and the time before was three weeks earler. For someone supposedly preparing for a checkride, I wasn't flying nearly enough.
It's a well known issue in flight training. Many people start flying as soon as they have just enough money saved up for a few lessons, hoping to maintain enough cash flow to keep them going. Whenever anyone asks my opinion, I always advise saving enough money up front to cover a pessimistic estimate of the costs and to clear the calendar for flying at least two to three times a week, preferably starting as early in the year as the weather allows to minimize interruptions in the training schedule. We learn more quickly the more often we fly because we're continually practicing and reinforcing our skills. In learning theory this is known as the principle of exercise. Without this frequent practice, we have to keep re-learning old material over and over again, which gets expensive.
What's that old saying? "Do as I say, not as I do!" Busted. Of course before I started my training for the Commercial certificate I planned for what I thought was a reasonable number of training hours using the currently available hourly cost figures. But I didn't count on an increase in hourly rate. But I didn't expect to need so much checkout time in the airplane. But I expected the skills to come more easily than they did. But I didn't expect a brain-drain at work to require me to spend more time there. But I didn't count on how much extra time it takes to train when you don't fly often enough. And now I found my training funds running low while my skills were actually eroding rather than improving!
Oh, there's my petard! I was wondering where that got to…
So what are the lessons learned? What's my way forward? I'm going to start with my most pessimistic estimate of the remaining time and money I'll need to spend to complete my certificate. Then I'll come up with a budget, set aside twice that amount into a training fund, and arrange my calendar for twice the amount of time I think I'll need—and schedule it!
And next time I'm planning some flight training I'll do all this before starting the flying, because anything less is just too expensive—in more ways than one.
The altimeter crept past 9,500 feet, the highest I had ever been at the controls of an aircraft. I gazed out over the landscape through the glider's big, bubble canopy and surveyed the scene below. From horizon to horizon, a layer of brown muck blanketed the ground—smoke from raging wildfires in Oregon far to the North, trapped below a strong inversion layer. I had found the one booming thermal powerful enough to break through that layer and climbed far above it. For those few moments I felt completely free—I was alone and on top of the world.
Of course I wasn't really. Alone, that is. Rhett the tow pilot towed me to my first thermal of the day, way back down at 2,500 feet or so. And Ken hooked up my tow rope and ran my wing on takeoff. The maintenance crew made sure the glider was ready for me that day, Connie reserved the glider for me and greeted me when I arrived, her husband Jim, his son Jimmy, and my instructor Jeffrey had taught me everything I knew about flying, and my patient wife Janet had supported me throughout my many hours and thousands of dollars of training. Before long, I'd be landing back at the gliderport and going to dinner with her and the whole crew. No, I wasn't really alone up there at 9,500 feet.
We pilots tend to be independent sorts, which is part of why we fly. We like to go where we want when we want by the route we want! But no pilot is an island, and as the years pass I find myself more and more grateful for that. One of the best decisions I've made in my flying career was joining my flying club as soon as I'd earned my airplane rating. In fact, it was the opportunity to buy into the club that prompted me to earn that rating in the first place. The experience has contributed immeasurably to my learning and enjoyment of the craft of flying. Our annual inspections are among the aviation events I most look forward to each year, not just because of what I'll learn about our airplanes, but because of the camaraderie, the "hangar flying," the runs to the deli for bagloads of sandwiches. It's some of the best smelly, greasy fun I have all year.
A recent AOPA survey looking into the reasons for the appallingly high dropout rate among student pilots identified this experience of community as one of the things that students crave when they come to aviation—and it seems to be increasingly hard to find. At many rental FBOs, even some that bill themselves as flying clubs, it's all too common for a student to show up, preflight the airplane, take a lesson, tie the airplane down, and leave. Their instructor might be the only person they talk to while at the airport. No hanging out on the FBO porch with the old timers, listening to tall tales. No fellow students getting their shirttails cut after first solo. No Saturday afternoon barbecues. If we want general aviation to stay healthy and vibrant, we have to change that. We have to welcome new pilots into the fold as fellow and sister practitioners of a magical craft. I know we can do better.
I lingered at the top of that monster thermal for some time, reluctant to leave it. I knew on a day like this that there was nowhere to go, and once I turned away I would return quickly to Earth. Glider pilots are acutely aware that "what goes up must come down," and sure enough, the moment I turned towards the gliderport, the bottom fell out and I pushed the nose down to speed through the ridiculously heavy sink. In just a few minutes I was descending back into the muck and entering the pattern for a landing.
As I tied the glider down, I noticed something else—I was hungry! I smiled as I anticipated the evening ahead: gourmet pizza and micro-brew—and good friends.
Yes, I thought, I'm a lucky man.
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