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And the award goes to… Pipistrel-USA.com!

On Monday, October 3, at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California, NASA awarded the first prize of $1.35 million in the NASA/CAFE Foundation Green Flight Challenge.

The Challenge, established by the CAFE Foundation and sponsored by Google, stipulated that an aircraft seating at least two people, with at least two side-by-side, must fly a 200-mile course non-stop while averaging at least 100 mph and using the energy equivalent of less than 1 gallon of gasoline per occupant.

Pipistrel's Taurus G4 achieved this feat with an average speed of 107 mph over the course using the equivalent in electric power of just over half a gallon of gasoline per occupant. As Pipistrel team leader Jack Langelaan pointed out, this is over twice the efficiency of a fully loaded Toyota Prius at over twice the speed.

In short, Pipistrel hit it out of the park.

The second-place entry, the eGenius concept, designed and built by the University of Stuttgart's Institute of Aircraft Design, also handily achieved the goal, achieving almost twice the required fuel efficiency.

I find the success of the Taurus G4 and the eGenius tremendously exciting. As I've discussed in an earlier post, electric aircraft have the potential to be superior to those powered by internal combustion engines in just about every respect: simple operation, lower cost, improved reliability, minimal maintenance, better performance at altitude, greatly reduced noise, zero emissions, and a tiny carbon footprint. The one area where they fall far short is range, because of the low energy density of current electricity storage systems. And admittedly, with a wingspan of over 75 feet, the Taurus G4 is unlikely to be coming to a taxiway near you anytime soon, but electricity storage technology is progressing very rapidly. Combined with the inherent efficiencies of electric motors and aerodynamic improvements, a practical electric airplane, suitable for real cross-country flight carrying at least two passengers and light baggage, is probably less than ten years away.

Even before then, electrics will be practical for flight training. When you're mostly flying less than an hour within 25 miles of your home airport, you don't need much range. And I think electrics will make excellent trainers. Their simplicity will allow students to focus more on mastering their stick-and-rudder skills—in my opinion, the most important aspect of primary flight training. What's more, they'll reduce the cost of flight training significantly. Flight schools will love them because of their reliability and inexpensive maintenance.

I believe history will regard The Green Flight Challenge as one of the key moments in aerospace innovation, right up there with the Orteig Prize and the Ansari X Prize. I want to congratulate the Taurus G4 and eGenius teams for their achievement and thank the CAFE Foundation, NASA, and Google, for providing the impetus for this innovation.

And I can't wait to fly my first electric airplane!

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Last Saturday morning, as my wife Janet and I puttered around the kitchen preparing breakfast, she asked out of the blue, "What do you think can be done about air show safety?"

I pondered for a moment. There have been several bad air show crashes this year that have killed pilots. "Maybe a careful review of each routine to make sure the pilot always has enough altitude or airspeed to dead-stick it down if the power fails," I suggested. "That was Bob Hoover's rule. Still, air show flying is always going to be risky. Fortunately, there hasn't been a spectator fatality at an air show in the U.S. in decades."

She shook her head. "Yesterday," she said. "A P-51 crashed into the crowd at the Reno Air Races. Really bad."

I hadn't heard. As I sat in front of my computer reading the sketchy details of the crash that were known at the time, I felt numb. While my emotions shut down, the analytical part of my brain couldn't help but notice the usual misinformed if well-intentioned reporting in the press.

For one thing, many of the stories used the terms "air show" and "air race" interchangeably. It's a common misunderstanding. Even Janet, who's very knowledgable about aviation, confused the two. As Mac McClellan pointed out this week in an article on the EAA website, air show performances are strictly regulated to prevent airplanes from ever flying toward the crowd. In air racing, however, to complete the circuit of the course, the airplanes must fly towards the crowd at some point. Friday's events made horrifically clear what can happen when they do.

Frankly, I'm angry. I'm angry about the senseless loss of life. I'm angry about those left with severe and in many cases permanent injuries. And while it pales in comparison to these visceral horrors, dammit, I'm angry about the black eye that the overwhelming majority of conscientious pilots and aviation as a whole suffer as a result of this needless crash.

While I don't personally feel the "need for speed" in an airplane, I understand and respect those who do. I believe everyone should be encouraged to do what they're passionate about, and there's no question that pylon racing challenges pilots to hone their skills in ways that nothing else can. Air racers are among the best pilots anywhere, and I admire and aspire to their skill level. If pilots want to risk their own lives in pursuit of this passion, I won't say a word against them. That's their choice.

But all aviators, regardless of aircraft or mission, must always remember that we are pilots in command of fast-moving projectiles. As such we are bound if nothing else by FAR 91.13, which states, "No person may operate an aircraft… in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another." This is more than a regulation. It's our moral obligation whenever we make the choice to take an aircraft into the air.

Meanwhile the crash investigation goes on. The NTSB and the FAA will sift through every fragment, interview everyone involved in minute detail, and try to determine what went so horribly wrong on Friday. As angry as I am, I have no interest whatsoever in fixing blame. It would be a bitter and useless exercise. But we do need to understand how this happened, and whatever the answer turns out to be, one thing is clear to me.

This must not happen again.

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A beautiful, vintage T-33, with its distinctive straight wings and bulbous tip tanks roared past show center in a knife-edge pass. My wife Janet and I were watching the airshow at this year's Aviation Roundup in Minden, Nevada, and chatting with air-taxi pilot and flight instructor Dave, who was there with his sleek Piper Meridian promoting his air taxi service, Gary Air. As we jabbered about airplanes, flying, and my recent flight training, Dave showed us a little book he'd just picked up at the show entitled Flight Emergency, a collection of fictional but realistic emergency scenarios that explores the possible outcomes of various decisions.

"This looks really good," he said. "The author has a booth just over there."

We made our way over and introduced ourselves to author Reya Kempley, a young woman who's become a pilot relatively recently. In the course of her training and her early experiences as a private pilot, Reya found herself wanting a deeper working knowledge of aeronautical decision making. But while most pilots might be content with a little extra study or some more dual instruction, Reya seems to have taken to heart that the best way to learn something is to teach it. She wrote a book on the subject!

And she's done an excellent job. She presents scenarios in a vivid and engaging way, taking advantage of the "principle of intensity" to help the lessons stick in the mind. Pilots will easily be able to project themselves into her characters' predicaments, and by actively choosing from the available decisions they can experience the possible outcomes much more interactively than is usually possible with a printed book. Flight Emergency is one of the better uses of this technique that I've seen.

We bought a copy of Reya's book and chatted with her about her process in writing it, how she approached various experts for advice and technical reviews, and her plans for marketing the book.

"It's amazing how supportive and helpful people have been," she said, noting that prominent aviation authors including Rod Machado and Max Trescott generously gave their advice, reviewed her manuscript, and provided endorsements.

Late that afternoon as the shadows lengthened and the large cumulus clouds to the East began to dissipate, Janet and I took off in my club's A36 Bonanza in a stiff crosswind. We circled for altitude Northwest of Minden in the thin, hot desert air before turning on course to cross the towering Sierra Nevada and the North Shore of crystal-blue Lake Tahoe.

"That was a fun show," Janet said as Minden and the Carson Valley receded behind us. "I particularly enjoyed chatting with Reya."

"Me too. She's done good work," I agreed. "It bodes well for the future of general aviation!"

"That it does!" Janet replied with a smile.

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"Gas: leave it alone; undercarriage: three green lights; mixture: rich; prop: full forward; fuel pump: on; seat belts: on and secure. Landing checklist complete," I called out as my instructor Bill and I descended on a long straight-in approach after a lesson. I wasn't referring to the printed checklist, although it was on my lapboard. When approaching to land at busy Reid Hillview airport in San Jose, California, with its high volume of training activity and parallel approaches, I want my eyes outside the airplane as much as possible until we're off the runway and stopped.

Is it a problem that I wasn't actually using the checklist? The FAA practical test standards (PTS) for various certificates and ratings contain boilerplate language referring to "appropriate use of checklists." So how, exactly, are checklists most appropriately used? Many instructors advocate always using them as do-lists: read the item on the list, do it, and move on to the next item. Other instructors, concerned about the head-down time required to use checklists this way, advocate doing a procedure from memory and using the checklist afterwards to verify that the items are done.

It's helpful to understand that modern aircraft checklists have largely evolved for use by professional, multi-pilot crews. These crews have the luxury of dividing the workload into "pilot flying" (PF) and "pilot not flying" (PNF) duties, with the PNF usually reading off "challenges" (items requiring a response) from the checklist and the PF doing those items and responding appropriately. This is an effective division of labor in part because one pilot can remain head-up while the other is head-down.

Single-pilot flying, however, requires one pilot to perform both PF and PNF duties simultaneously. For this reason, in my opinion, head-down checklist reading is best done only in low-workload phases of flight or when stationary on the ground.

Enter mnemonics and flows. Besides allowing more heads-up flying, they engage more of the senses, which is especially important for pilots whose thinking is primarily visual (most people), auditory, or kinesthetic rather than text-oriented. I'm partial to flows because I'm primarily a visual and kinesthetic thinker. Seeing and touching the items I need to attend to in a logical order is actually a more reliable method for me than the printed checklist. I'm much more likely skip a line of text than a step in a flow.

And even though I'm not primarily auditory, I find mnemonics like GUMPFS (gas, undercarriage, mixture, prop, flaps (or fuel pump), seat belts) especially useful when I need to be really heads-up, with eyes outside looking for traffic. I can usually complete these items by feel, or with only very brief glances inside the cockpit. This check is quick enough that I can afford to do it at least three times before landing.

"Three green lights," I called out, taking a quick glance at the landing gear indicators as we crossed the airport fence on a very short final.

Yes, like most pilots who fly retractable-gear airplanes, those little green lights are the main reason I'm such a maniac for GUMP checks. I don't care how high the workload gets—I do not want to be the guy who lands a perfectly good airplane gear-up!

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"Wow—only two tenths of one percent of the US population has a pilot's license, and AOPA says up to 80 percent of people who start training quit before they earn one! What are my chances of success?"

With a cursory glance at the statistics, it would be easy for a prospective pilot to despair of ever earning their wings. So few people have succeeded in becoming pilots. Doesn't that mean that the odds are against me?

This line of thinking is analogous to what's known in probability theory as the "Monte Carlo" fallacy—the belief that recent past outcomes in independent trials of a random process influence present probabilities. This crops up often, such as when a baseball fan says that a hitter who's been in a slump is "due for a hit," or the scene in the movie "The World According to Garp" in which an airplane crashes into the house the protagonist is considering buying. Garp decides to buy the house on the spot, saying they'll be safe in the house because it's been "pre-disastered."

It's a funny scene, but of course it's not true. Your chances of rolling a seven when shooting dice are exactly the same each time, no matter how many times you've come up snake eyes in the past. The problem with the Monte Carlo fallacy and similar thinking is that we allow past experience to inappropriately influence our estimate of our odds of success in a present endeavor. But while past experience is critically important in guiding our present actions, and is the only legitimate basis for a true confidence, our chances of success depend much more on what we're doing right now.

I think pilots often succumb to the Monte Carlo fallacy. After 10 straight beautiful landings, there's a tendency to fear we're "due" for a bad one or we're "using up our luck." We start to feel pressure, as though with every good landing, our situation becomes more and more precarious. But if we think rationally about it, we realize this isn't true. With every good landing we're actually reinforcing good habits. Still, Monte Carlo thinking can be strong, inducing us to "blow it" in the last few seconds of the landing flare and plunk it in.

Another problem with thinking in terms of probabilities is that our chances of success in just about any real-world endeavor are immensely more difficult to calculate than the odds in a simple game of dice. A vast array of factors comes into play, and as much as we might want to compute the odds, it's just not practical. This means our odds of success are effectively unknowable.

So let's not worry about them! The best way to improve our chances of success in the cockpit is to fly, steadily gaining experience, carefully observing our results, correcting mistakes, and reinforcing effective behaviors. That's the best way I know to stack the deck in our favor.

So what are your odds of earning a pilot's license? They depend primarily on what you choose to do right now.

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