Thursday, May 27, 2010

Airspeed Guest Essay: Ron Klutts Remembers Doug Bourn and Talks Safety

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These are the show notes to an audio episode. If you want to listen online, please use the direct link below.

For Ron Klutts, a long-time friend of Airspeed, the 17 February crash of a Cessna 310 near Palo Alto hit close to home. Ron knew the pilot well and the accident caused Ron to compose some of his thoughts into a really well-crafted essay.

As you know, I usually fly left seat in Airspeed episodes. But this is one instance where I’m happy to move over, sit back, tune radios, and get coffee for the pilot flying. Please give your full attention to this first-ever Airspeed guest essay. It’s worth your time and attention.

Take-offs are a surprise.

There are times in our lives where we pause to reflect on what we’ve accomplished, or what we hope to do in the future and how to achieve them. Other times it’s our failures that trigger this and we want to learn from it and try and avoid repeating them. Sometimes we get to learn from the events other people have gone through and reflect on it.

What follows is my journey of self-examination as a pilot.

First off I must thank Stephen Force for the inspiration I received from his First Solo episode and hearing of his journey with a bag of fears and the roadblocks he faced when his instructor died in a terrible crash.

It was in that episode that we as pilots are reminded aviation is safe but to a large extent it’s terribly unforgiving when an accident does happen. We want it to be safe for us, our loved ones and other passengers that entrust their lives and well being to us. It’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.

We strive to learn the performance characteristics and limitations of the aircraft we fly and then operate it safely within those boundaries.

We learn and practice emergency procedures so we can handle them and have a safe outcome for us and then lastly the plane.

From our early training onward we know the importance of protecting lives on the ground and the need to stay away from populated areas if we must land during an emergency.

I want to address a few things that have come to mind in the past weeks in light of a recent accident that struck all to close to home for me.

On February 17, 2010 a Cessna 310 left Palo Alto with three on board for an hour and fifty minute flight to southern CA. This time however, the flight lasted less than a minute.

The pilot was one of the good guys, a commercial rated CFI with whom I did my BFR with in 2005 when I joined the partnership he started with 4 other people for a Cessna 172.

I flew with him several times doing various training flights and have shared dinner and margaritas with all the members of our group to discuss plane issues, life, best routes to fly and places to go eat.

He was a successful and talented Electrical Engineer and someone who just loved aviation. His passion for teaching was clear as he enjoyed teaching others to fly to the extent it was hard to get him to accept anything more than a token payment for his time. He didn't do it for the money, but because it was FLYING! And he loved it.

I’ll leave it to the NTSB to make the determination of probable cause, my intent is to learn from that fact this accident did happen and in light of the WX conditions are there things that I would do to keep me safe in similar circumstances?

To that extent, I say that take-offs are a surprise. Why? It’s been said that while take-offs are optional, landings are clearly NOT.

How can it be said that take-offs are a surprise? Didn't we go to the airport with the intent and desire to take-off and go somewhere?

This concept comes from my training for the commercial rating. I learned many new habits that I’ll admit I should have been incorporating all along. Whether it was due to several years of not flying and having earned the private license a few decades previous, it was a good thing to learn these new safety related habits.

I’ll admit that learning to do passenger pre-start safety briefings and departure briefings felt awkward, as well as talking to myself in doing various callouts during the take-off roll. However I stuck with it and I knew that in the interest of safety, these were things a competent pilot needed to do. I was learning a new mindset and for that I was thankful.

Part of that departure briefing included what we expect to happen, and what to do in the event something didn't go as planned. This is where the surprise comes in.

My CFI, Jason Miller, told me that I should plan on aborting EVERY take-off and be surprised if the engine keeps running and we can accelerate to rotation speed and can fly away.

Even after that point we should be ready to react in case it fails on climb-out and we need to do something. Whether it’s landing straight ahead or making a slight turn to avoid obstacles, we need to be ready until the first 1000’ is under us and we have an extra moment to evaluate our situation.

A lot of the scenarios we practice involve emergencies at higher altitudes or in cruise flight. The failure we train for most on takeoff is an engine failure and then to a lesser degree instrumentation or loss of radio communication. At cruise altitude we have the luxury of a little time to diagnose, trouble shoot and develop a plan of action.

I remember a flight my buddy took years ago as a newly minted pilot. Returning from LA to Northern CA he faced higher than expected headwinds. He started getting nervous as the rental had fuel gauges that made it hard to accurately tell the quantity. This was a late night flight and would require a $20 fee to call someone from home to get fuel as this was before the 24 hour self serve pump era. He at least had time and altitude to consider his options. He now knows landing and paying the fee was cheap insurance and peace of mind even though he arrived safely but had cut his fuel reserve close.

I too have my own fuel story, but I used it as a learning experience to shape my practices today so that my reserves are higher and I’ll make the extra stop even if not really needed.

Sometimes the lessons we learn come from close calls, and in other cases from fatal accidents. Set some personal minimums and then STICK to them.

Part of our preparedness is to plan for the time when things do go wrong.

What are the action items for an electrical system failure?

What if the vacuum system failed?

What if an engine failed?

What if my engine fails at 200’? At 500’? At 1000’?

What if any of these occur in IMC?

Each altitude has different action plans and alternatives. Are we ready for each? Have YOU asked WHAT IF?

What if?….. What if?….

Were you surprised the engine didn’t fail so you could continue the take-off? You need to be surprised. Or did you firewall the throttle, waited a few seconds and pulled back, just EXPECTING all to go well?

I know I am asking WHAT IF now.

Now think of having to do that at 100 to 200 feet in IMC. That is a critical time to have to do this. Whether it’s diagnosing an engine or vacuum system failure affecting the attitude indicator to keep us upright, we need to have a back up plan before we start the take-off and be ready to react.

By doing the departure briefing I was reminding myself what I would do in various circumstances. It helped me to be spring loaded to react.

The same needs to be done for low visibility take-offs. I practiced how to do it during instrument training and to maintain aircraft control during the take-off roll.

These include failures of the vacuum system or an issue with the pitot static system that gives us the all important attitude information to keep the shiny side up.

Can we brush up our basic attitude flying skills? What about practicing partial panel? Could we practice a partial panel take-off to simulate a vacuum failure at rotation under the watchful eyes of a CFII of course. For those of you that are multi-rated, how proficient at single engine operations are you? Are you ready for an engine to fail and have practiced the procedures required?

I use a portable GPS as do many others and appreciate its many abilities including the terrain awareness so I know what’s out there if I’m in IMC or at night. Those mountains have a habit of being dark and unlit at night.

I had never thought of having the simulated panel page of the GPS up and displayed on take-off in case of an instrumentation failure. I love having the GPS for the battery powered backup navigation in case of an electrical failure. But never for a moment did I think it could serve a purpose on take-off. I may never do a take-off with a 100’ ceiling but the idea is the same.

Isn’t this why we got the instrument rating after all? To blast through a low fog layer into clear air a 1000’ above us? We need to remember that getting there carries with it certain risks during the first few minutes of flight that we need to be prepared for to the extent we possibly can.

On a recent flight I did put the GPS into the simulated panel page and thought of actually using it after rotation in IMC.

Would it have made a difference in the chaos of either an engine failure or dizziness caused from spatial disorientation from entering IMC so quickly after rotation?

It may not have, so make no mistake about it, I’m in no way implying I have found the cause or solution to this terrible accident, as the details and causes are unknown. It just got me thinking to look at my own safety practices and ask,


It’s been a few weeks since the accident that took our friend and colleague.

I’m having trouble coming to terms with this one. This was a seasoned and skilled pilot. It’s not my intent to analyze this accident and say what went wrong. My desire was to learn from this and see what I can do different to make me safer.

This means keeping my skills sharp and using anything at my disposal to stay upright as best I can.

If I’m ever not surprised, I’d like to think I thought of and practiced the right WHAT IF for that situation. That’s what we do as safe pilots.

So I put this question to you, are YOU thinking WHAT IF?

Will I be surprised at my next take-off? I hope so.
I WANT to be surprised on my next take-off, and a million more after that……..

I’d like to thank all the CFI’s I have learned from over the years.

Todd Bennett, Doug Groom, Dan Adams, Ewe Lemke, Steve Philipson, Jason Miller, and especially Doug Bourn.

Forget the Dr. title, I want CFI after my name. It’s coming, I can feel it.

All of you set a high standard I too aspire to attain and will teach ALL of my students to think of



More information about Doug Bourn is available at

You can e-mail Ron Klutts at, connect with him on myTransponder as CaptainRon, or or follow him on Twitter as @Captain_Ron.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What I Mean by "Epic"

We sling around the word “epic” a little too freely, thinks I. And I guess that I’m more prone so say something like that after the last few days. They’ve been – well – epic.

When last I posted, I was at the hotel on Whiteman AFB in Missouri. After shutting down and clearing out, Rod Rakic and I headed out onto the base.

The first order of business was to secure breakfast. It turns out that, as the Alamo and Riverwalk are to San Antonio, the breakfast burritos at the bowling alley are to Whiteman AFB. No fewer than three people volunteered that the breakfast burritos at the bowling alley were second to none and suggested that we’d be fools not to try them out. And they were right!

Rod then dragged me to Military Clothing Sales to right a wrong that he has been seeing in my Air Force cover for months. I procured the largest one they offered (7-7/8) and it’s still a little small, but serviceable.

Then on to the good stuff. We were guests in the tower to see how operations work at the base for the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. Everything you’d expect to see in a regular FAA tower, but about twice the personnel and A-10s, T-38s, and attack helicopters also launching regularly. And, when it came time to launch the B-2 training sorties, let’s just say that we had a unique view from close up. OPSEC suggests that I say little more, but it was a completely new experience for me.

Shortly thereafter, we got some lunch and then headed to the training center for a couple of sorties in the Level D full-motion B-2 simulator. (Yeah, I said Level D full-motion B-2 simulator!)

Side note: Please pardon the lack of pictures or other multimedia. I left the cameras and other shovels and rakes and implements of the podcaster’s craft back in the car. OPSEC is king there at Whiteman and I wanted to be a good guest. I know that I’m the guy in the new-media community who’s the first to shout at another new-media guy, “If you didn’t get audio and video, it didn’t happen!” Fair enough. The following didn’t happen.

The facility is in a vault (!) in the interior of the building with all kinds of security surrounding it. And that’s the security that we could see. I’m guessing that there were lavers upon layers of it that we couldn’t even tell were there.

I’ve never been in a sim facility before that was this sophisticated or realistic. You walk over a bridge to the sim compartment, which is itself on hydraulic supports and capable of a wide range of motion in all relevant directions and at all relevant rates. It’s a full B-2 cockpit with a wrap-around video display that cover the entire window area.

Each sortie involved a takeoff, a 30-degree turn (uncharacteristic for this aircraft that likes to stay very flat and present a very limited radar signature), a climb to a KC-135R tanker, various attempts at aerial refueling, then an ILS and landing back at Whiteman.

Rod flew the first sortie and I flew the second. The guy not flying hung out in the control room with the sim technician and watched a set of panels and a view “outside” while listening to the conversation in the cockpit.

Each sortie was about 0.7 long with the IP in the left seat and Rod or me in the right seat. You have a stick in your right hand and a fistful of throttles in your left hand. The PTT for the intercom is on the throttles. There are varying levels of automation and you engage them at various points after takeoff to assist in flying the aircraft.

Takeoff was surprisingly normal-feeling. Just a lot bigger and more protracted. Not unlike flying the DC-3 or another large aircraft that actually has vertical control surfaces to speak of. There’s a long takeoff roll and then you rotate off at well in excess of the cruising speed of most of the aircraft that I usually fly. Once established, you let the autopilot fly the climb airspeed until it’s time to pitch over for cruise.

At that point, the sim causes a KC-135R to appear magically in front of you and you climb to meet it. Boy, do I have a lot of respect for anyone who gets gas in mid-flight! I suppose I had already begun to have that respect from the sortie last summer in the KC-135R from Grissom ARB. But the process from the “get” side is awe-inspiring.

I was really saturated throughout the refueling process. But I remember stealing glances at the airspeed indicator and kicking myself for being two knots off. Two knots makes a big difference. It’s a walking pace. You can cover a lot of linear distance in ten seconds at two knots. Enough to blow right out of the top, bottom, or sides of the 2,000 or so cubic feet that I’m guessing make up the volume in which you can receive gas.

And the B-2, like any other large aircraft, reacts slowly and deliberately to control inputs. If you’re moving the controls in response to what you see out the window right now, you’re just piling up pilot-induced oscillations. What you see out the window and on the displays is the aircraft reacting to what you did three to seven seconds ago. It’s like playing guitar plugged into a long delay effect. You’re listening to what you did awhile ago, but you have to play now to make stuff happen in a few seconds or the whole thing gets downright un-musical in a hurry.

Rod and I each had boom strikes on the windshield and we caused permanent simulated psychological damage to the simulated boom operator. Neither of us actually got connected to the tanker. But neither of us killed anyone, either.

Each of us confided to the other after the experience that he was hoping like hell that the other guy wouldn’t get any gas. KMHL to KPWK is a long time to spend in a C-182T with a guy who got gas when you didn’t.

Rod got the better landing. You don’t flare the B-2. It’s a flying wing. You just point it at the touchdown zone and roll the power to idle. The airplane flares itself. I had a hard time with that and had to push a little at the IP’s call. Rod just flew the thing on. Cool on his part, but not enough to make the flight back to Chicagoland in said C-182T any worse than it needed to be.

And I guess I got the last word by remembering to bring my logbook. The IP signed it for the sortie and an already cool logbook got one notch cooler.

We got back into the minivan and headed back to Marshall (KMHL) to preflight, fuel up, and get back to Chicagoland. We launched just before sunset and air-filed back to Chicago Executive (KPWK). It was severe clear most of the way back with stars guiding the way, but the destination was iffy. A low-pressure system was dominating the whole area. KPWK was forecast to be 1,000 overcast with four miles or so of visibility and we were good to go with that. Two G1000-qualified aircrew in a good airplane with lots of alternate options.

As we neared the area, the METAR had dropped to 300 overcast with low visibility in mist. We were busting through banks of stratus and cumulus clouds, although the ride was mostly smooth. We got within 10 miles or so of the airport, snatching glances down through breaks in the clag to see the whole area around KPWK socked in.

We had briefed minima for our aircrew of 1,000 ft ceilings and three miles of visibility. There was some temptation to go down for a peek, but I’m proud to say that this aircrew planned the flight and flew the plan. Rod keyed up ATC and requested a diversion to DuPage (KDPA). We got vectors immediately and planned for the ILS.

The approach got downright interesting. We spotted the runway from two miles outside the final approach fix. About that time, KDPA tower advised us that visibility was at a half mile – minimums for this approach. We let the tower know that we could plainly see the runway. The tower allowed as how the other end of the airfield might be worse than our end of the airfield. In any case, we had both FAA minima (according to the AWOS) and out own minima (according to two installations of the Mark II Eyeball) and Rod brought her in for a good landing.

As it turns out, the other end of the field was socked in pretty well. I recall offering Rod $100 cash if he'd shut off the strobes sooner rather than later. But we made the taxi to Illinois Wing CAP headquarters without incident and buttoned up the aircraft for the night.

The next day was a training exercise for the Illinois Wing. As many of you know, I’m planning to attend Civil Air Patrol Mission Aircrew School at the National Emergency Services Academy next month and get trained to be a mission pilot. In order to do that, I need to first, among other things, become a mission scanner. I had completed all of the requirements other than a couple of technical operational items and flying on two training sorties. I’ve been slightly bunched up about the possibility of not getting the sorties in and missing the chance to go to MAS, So I lined up three opportunities in the hopes of hitting two.

The first was an Illinois Wing exercise on Saturday. Rod had arranged to let me fly on an aircrew in the exercise to known out a sortie there before driving home. The next opportunity was a Michigan Wing SAREX at KFNT the next day and, if one of those opportunities blew out, I had a self-funded unit sortie scheduled for Tuesday.

I got the Saturday sortie after the weather cleared up at KDPA. I sat front seat with Rod and we had the privilege of flying with 1Lt Tommy Whang and 1Lt Sheri Sorenson in the back. Sheri was flying a scanner sortie and the Tonny was shooting photos to maintain a qualification.

We located the target northwest of the Chicago area, did an expanding square pattern with the help of the G1000 and the GFC 700 autopilot before getting the required pictures and heading home.

I beat feet for home and arrived at KFNT early the next morning. After cooling my heels at the mission base for a few hours, Capt Norm Malek and 2Lt Dave wood arrived with the KPTK C-182T. We drew a sector search with a start at a lat-long point and a full mow of the lawn for the rest of the sector if we didn’t find anything. And there was a photo mission to boot on the way back.

We arrived at the start point and I set up the search with the G1000. The amount of time that I have in this particular airplane, together with the seven or more hours I’d spent sitting behind the G1000 over the prior few days, made setting up the search second nature and I had us in an expanding square in no time.

By the fourth leg of the square, Dave spotted a blue tarp and the letters “CAP” mowed into the grass behind a house in the search area. We radioed in to base and were instructed to photograph the find and then return to base.

Mission scanner sortie no. 2 complete! Locked and loaded for MAS and NESA 2010! And the end of an exhausting and challenging four days in a flight suit.

Which brings me back to the epic-ness of the last few days. We spend amazing amounts of time, money, and energy learning how to fly. How to make airplanes perform missions to their full potential. And, all too often, it’s simulated ersatz stuff. Hoods instead of clouds. Discussions of hypothetical weather on hypothetical trips to hypothetical places. Calculating weight and balance for people in the back seat who never actually sit there.

I’m not saying that those exercises aren’t useful. They are. But it’s not hard to arrive at a state of mind in which the hypothetical is enough. Is all you need. Is normal.

I’m here to tell you that it’s not enough and you shouldn’t let it be normal. It’s not easy to decide to launch into known weather on one of the longest trips you’ve ever flown. In strange airspace. To strange airports. With the very real challenge of thinking on your feet when things don’t go as planned. Then doing it at night in sustained actual IMC with low ceilings and wildly varying visibility. Then launching with a CAP aircrew to go find stuff on the ground that, although simulated, is real enough for you because you’re up there packing crazy amounts of workload into limited bandwidth and actually putting the words of the MART into action and objectively demonstrating skills.

None of this stuff is easy. Especially the first time. And the general aviation training culture seems pretty willing to let you keep pretending as long as you like.

But I’m here to tell you that the hard stuff is worth it. I just got a four-day immersive demonstration of that very thing. I stretched just about every limit I had and the preparation and willingness to go launch into it paid off. This is epiphany. This is discovery.

This is epic.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Channeling Dick Collins: IFR to Whiteman AFB - Almost

So Rod Rakic calls me up a few weeks ago. Seems we have an opportunity to go check out the B-2 Spirit bomber at Whiteman AFB. Cliff, a mutual friend, had kindly offered to give us a tour of the facilities and get us close to the mighty Mach 0.95, 335,500-lb. Heavy stealth bomber.

I, not being an idiot, say “Let’s go!”

To make it even more epic, Rod arranged for an Illinois wing CAP C-182T Nav III to make the trip from Chicago Executive (fka Palwaukee) (KPWK) to Whiteman.

When we got together at KPWK and sat down to brief the mission. A band of precipitation sat between us and our objective. No getting around it, really. It was all green and yellow, but non-convective as nearly as we could tell. Ceilings between 800 and 3,000 and tops between FL180 and FL250. It was clear that, if we were going to make this trip, we were going to be in the crud for a good portion of the flight.

Both Rod and I are qualified CAP pilots in the G1000-equipped bird. We’re pretty good operators – Rod perhaps more so than me. The issue now became whether to go launch into weather that we both knew that the bird could handle and for which both of us are well-trained, but that neither of us had experienced first-hand.

It was like a Dick Collins video. Planning to go launch into the soup for an extended period.

I’m a reasonably cautious guy. Old and bold pilots and all. I plan to be old. So’s Rod. I’ve talked with him about go/no-go decisions a lot in the past. We’re both conservative. But we came up with a “go” for this mission. Capable bird. Two qualified pilots. Weather thick but non-convective.

So we launched. We got into the soup well before Moline at 6,000 MSL. Then we hit the precip. Green on the XM satellite radar. Then yellow. Then green again. We gave the airplane a good bath.

And we were rewarded with a smooth flight and a beautiful phase between an undercast and an overcast. One of those great feelings you get when you train for something and then have success when you go out and actually experience it.

Then circumstance frowned upon us. We had been watching some convective activity near Whiteman, but it appeared that it would blow over by the time we got there. But the red stayed near the base. And then ATC called us up and told us that the Whiteman tower was evacuating because of a tornado in the vicinity. No good for Whiteman.

So we looked at our alternate, which was near Whiteman, but also close to the thunderboomers. With the help of the G1000, we identified Marshall Memorial Airport (KMHL) in Marshall, Missouri and shot the RVAV 18 to a smooth landing. The field was well above minimums, but it was scattered and ragged with a frond in the area and we stayed IFR through landing, then called up flight service to cancel.

As we taxied to the ramp, our eyes were greeted by the glorious sight of a CAP van parked outside the terminal building. It’s assigned to the Marshall Composite Squadron, which is based there at the field. A couple of phone calls later, we were meeting with the squadron’s commander and getting the keys to the van to drive the last 50 miles to Whiteman.

As we drove, lightning lit up the skies and low and dark clouds rolled overhead. Rail came down in varying amounts. Like all good pilots, we rehashed the flight and the decision to divert. I think we did a pretty good job of being situationally aware, being nimble and flexible to deal with the weather, and using good CRM to optimize cockpit operations.

Channeling Dick Collins for the first time. Flying through the soup and letting nature wash the airplane. This is the payoff for a lot of hard work. Now down to the hotel lobby to meet Rod and go see us some bombers!

Monday, May 03, 2010

More Acro and Camera Shakedowns

Beautiful day with 6,000 scattered and 10+ SM visibility. Yeah, I have a head cold, but cameras need testing and the acro tolerance needs extending.

So I went up with Barry for 0.9 in the Super D to fly some acro and test out the cameras. Four of them on this flight. These frame grabs are from the Panasonic placed on the left side of the dash. More on the other cameras soon!

Being a little blue about the first couple of flights of the year (10 minutes and 12 minutes of acro, respectively) and wanting to pour on the coal to build some real tolerance for an upcoming Air Force ride, I pushed it to the limit.

And then some.

Yep. Airplane hurl no. 2. (The first was in a T-6A after about 1.2 hours and the full SUPT syllabus of maneuvers.) But that's okay. I'm good with that. You don't build tolerance by pointing the airplane back at the airport as soon as you feel a little green. You tough it out. And sometime you hurl. And then you tie a knot in the little white bag, stow it someplace where it won't float the next time you go negative-G, and keep on going.

Anyway, it's off to bed. Something like eight days until principal photography kicks off for Acro Camp and there's lots to do before people start showing up.