About the Author

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Southport, Manitoba, Canada
Steve Pomroy is a professional flight instructor and aviation writer. He has been teaching since 1995 and holds an Airline Transport Pilot License, Class 1 Instructor and Aerobatic Instructor Ratings, military QFI, and an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering. He's written and published three flight training books through his company, SkyWriters Publishing, and has several other books under development. Steve currently teaches RCAF pilot candidates on their Primary Flight Training course.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Vitamin 'g' Shortage

It's been a pretty slow week here. The weather (snow, snow, and more snow) has had us grounded for almost two weeks. Every now and then it clears up for half a day, but the students get priority and I don't get to fly. I won't have any of my own students until after the New Year. In the meantime, I'm trying to get my Aerobatic Instructor Rating out of the way. That was going well for a while, but now progress has stalled. All this lack of flying is making me feel very rusty!

It's funny how, when it's not that busy (like now!), my motivation to write all but disappears. I should be getting lots of posting done, but here I am writing a filler post a week after my last. But fear not! My next real post is started, and will be here in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future. TEASER: It's a follow up from my last post on equilibrium, and is a brief discussion of "centrifugal force".

Happy Flying!

Monday, November 22, 2010


Equilibrium is one of those areas that many new student pilots have trouble understanding. It's actually a pretty simple concept, but we tend to over-complicate these things sometimes. If we want to be picky about our terminology, we really should use the term "mechanical equilibrium". But since we don't normally talk about other forms of equilibrium in aviation (e.g. – hydrostatic, thermal, chemical, etc.), we can stick to the shortened and more generic "equilibrium".

So, equilibrium (the mechanical kind) refers to the absence of acceleration. If we think in terms of Newton's Laws of motion, this suggests that there are no net forces acting on the aircraft—so all of the forces balance (cancel out) and the aircraft will travel in a straight line at a constant speed.

That seems pretty simple (and it is!), but the confusion comes from our intuitive understanding. Equilibrium is often considered (intuitively) to refer to a stationary object—which isn't a requirement at all. We generally don't have trouble extending this intuitive concept to steady straight-and-level flight. But we often run into trouble trying to apply it to climbs and descents.

The "logic" (for lack of a better term) applied seems to be that if the altitude is changing, there must be acceleration, and we therefore must not be in equilibrium. This is wrong. In a steady climb or steady descent, there are no net forces acting on the aircraft, and there are therefore no accelerations.

So straight steady climbs and descents are included in the list of maneuvers that qualifiy as equilibrium—along with straight & level at constant airspeed and sitting stationary on the ramp (and hovering if you fly helicopters). However, the transition from straight & level into a climb/descent is not equilibrium, nor is the transition back into straight & level.

Why is this important? Well, equilibrium (or the lack thereof) is related to the forces acting on the aircraft. We need to be conscious of these forces in order to anticipate aircraft behavior. This is especially important at low speeds, where an increase in lift brings us closer to the stall. If we have more lift than weight, then we are not in equilibrium, and the stall speed is increased. This will happen when we make adjustments to the flight path using pitch.

Happy Flying!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Air Cadets

Since we’ve recently passed Armistice Day, this seems like a good time to write a quick note about the Cadet program. Although I would consider all of the Cadet programs (Army, Air, Sea) to be outstanding, my own experience was with Air Cadets . So, in keeping with the flying theme of this blog, I’ll focus on Air Cadets .

The most obvious statement that can be made about Air Cadets is that you can learn to fly through the program at no (financial) cost to yourself. The Air Cadets have a Gliding Scholarship program, through which you can go on a summer course and get your Glider License, and subsequently be presented with your Glider Wings. Also, they have a Flying Scholarship program, through which you can go on a summer course and get your Private Pilot License, and subsequently be presented with your “Power” wings. Getting to go on either of these programs is competitive and requires you to participate in a squadron level groundschool course, write an entrance exam, and participate in a board interview. The competition process itself is a valuable learning experience, and even if you don’t get to go on course, you can try again the next year.

Aside from the opportunity to fly, the Cadet program offers a whole host of other activities and benefits—not the least of which is a host of summer courses, varying in length from 2 to 6 weeks, to help cadets develop a variety of skills, including: leadership and instruction, musical ability, wilderness survival, and introductory courses in things such as aircraft maintenance and air traffic control. At the squadron level (meaning at home, not on a summer course), the Cadet program offers sports, compulsory and optional training activities, wilderness outings, and a variety of opportunities for personal growth. Perhaps the most significant of the personal growth experiences is the progressive responsibility earned as leadership skills are developed and rank is increased.

A good friend of mine, who never learned to fly through Cadets, but later paid his own way through flight training, once commented on the value he received from Cadets. He noted that even though he hadn’t learned to fly through them, he wouldn’t consider trading the experience for anything. The life skills obtained from the Cadet program were invaluable.

Surely, the most expensive benefit I received from Cadets was my Private Pilot License. But when I set financial considerations aside, I see many other treasures I obtained from my cadet experience. My early development as a leader, teacher, and citizen were almost exclusively the result of my Cadet experience. None of these things were (or are) provided by our public or post-secondary education system.

The Cadet program is considered to be a “paramilitary” organization in that they wear military uniforms, participate in military formalities such as marching and saluting, and use a military style rank structure. However, cadets do not receive any combat training and are under no obligation to join the Regular Forces or Reserves later in life. This is a common misunderstanding among parents. I had at least two friends growing up who were not permitted to join Cadets because their parents were certain they’d be required to join the Army later on. This fear is completely unfounded. The Cadet program is, first and foremost, a youth organization.

If you are between 12 and 18, you should look into the Cadet program and consider joining. If you’re older, you should consider how you might contribute. Leadership in the Cadet program comes primarily from the Cadet Instructor Cadre (CIC). Civilian positions are also sometimes available.

Happy Flying!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Armastice Day

In 2005, I took a trip to France just a week or so before Armistice Day. The trip was for myself and two coworkers to receive training in a software package called CATIA. But we went a week early so that we could vacation a little and see the country. When we first arrived, we went our separate ways, and then met up again in Paris a week later for our course.

My wife and I went to Normandy. We stayed in Bayeaux and toured around from there. One of the major attractions of Normandy, of course, is the D-Day beaches. We got to visit Omaha, Utah, and Juno, but missed out on Gold. Juno, of course, was of particular interest, because it’s where the Canadians came ashore. At both Juno and Omaha, I stood in the water and looked inland to see what the soldiers saw. At Omaha, it was a vast flat beach with no cover. At Juno, it was a steep sea wall close to the beach. In either case, I wouldn’t want to have to make the crossing with a bunch of angry machine gunners on the other side.

There are plenty of preserved memories of the war. These include naval barges that were sunk in shallow water to create mini-islands and give landing craft some cover, concrete bunkers used as part of the German defenses, and giant craters created by naval artillery meant to suppress German defenses.

Looking at the area now, you’d never say that it was once the scene of such violence. It is beautiful and peaceful there. It’s the kind of place I’d like to retire to someday.

One thing that surprised me was how many German people were there to see the sights. Of course, Germany is right next-door to France, so it really shouldn’t have been that surprising. But it was. Several of them seemed very regretful over the war. One older gentleman (not old enough to be a veteran, but older than me, perhaps a child during the war) mentioned that he visited these beaches regularly to remind himself that "we must never let this happen again".

Sure enough, the preserved evidence of the violence is very convincing. As peaceful as the area is now, there’s enough information available, and enough preserved scarring, to convince anyone that we can do without a repeat. So today, take a moment to remember those who put themselves at risk, some of whom paid the ultimate price, to preserve and protect our way of life. Then take a moment to remember those currently serving in Afghanistan.

Happy Flying!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Piloting as a Profession: Part 5, More on Training Standards

... Continuing from the previous post (Part 4, Training Standards) and considering the question, "What single change could be made that would result in the most improvement in the flight training industry?":

The whole point of training is to enable students to learn from the experience of others. This suggests that we need experienced instructors, who can then pass on that experience for their students’ to benefit. So, the most important thing we need is better trained and more experienced instructors. An instructor who just barely has a Commercial Pilot License is not usually capable of providing high-quality instruction. 200 hours (ok, 230 hours) really isn’t enough time for an instructor to build up their own experience bank to draw upon when teaching.

This wasn’t always the case. When the training paradigm currently used in aviation was developed, 200 hour pilots had flown multiple high-speed, complex aircraft and had survived over 100 hours of combat. The very fact that they were alive provided a testament to their abilities and experience. No such filter exists today (thankfully!).

Does this mean that a 200 hour pilot can’t be a good instructor? Of course not. Notice that I said "usually". But making policy or regulations based on the occasional exception is a poor approach to quality control.

Increasing the experience requirements for instructors doesn’t just get us better instructors through a direct increase in experience. It also impacts motivation. If the experience requirement is increased enough, it cuts off instruction as an entry level job for time-builders. By the time an instructor candidate is qualified to teach, they will have enough flight time to have other career-path options. This means we’ll only get instructors who want to teach. Right now, there are far too many instructors who just want to get hours at somebody else’s expense—they don’t really want to teach. More often than not, this motivation shows up in the quality of work. So we often have a compound problem in that an inexperienced instructor (who is already limited by a lack of experience) also doesn’t want to teach. Both aspects of this problem can be eliminated, or at least significantly reduced, by a large increase in instructor experience requirements.

So how much experience should be required of instructor candidates? I don’t know, but I think it’s a question worth investigating. I’m inclined to suggest that an ATPL should be required for an instructor rating. But I don’t have any facts or figures to support this, it’s just a gut instinct.

Are there any "cons" to this approach? Certainly. The only significant one I can think of is in the training of Private Pilots. Increasing instructor experience requirements will also increase the cost of training, since the instructors will be paid better. I’m loath to suggest changes that will drive up the cost of training, as it is expensive enough as it is. But short of having different instructor qualifications for teaching PPL and CPL candidates (I don’t think this would work very well), I don’t see a way around the cost increase.

But what about all those pilot wannabe’s that now can’t live the dream because we’ve cut off the primary time-building option? Nonsense. This "problem" will quickly sort itself out through changes in the supply and demand dynamic. What will actually happen is that pilots fresh out of flight school will have the opportunity to fly Part VII operations much more quickly because the supply of high-time ex-instructors will disappear. Will this negatively impact safety? No, because the increase in the quality of training will cover the shortfall of experience—that’s the whole point of the change. Will there be an adjustment period? Yes, and it will have to be managed carefully.

Will this change, in and of itself, fix everything? Nope. There are changes needed in the training program and completion standard for both the CPL and the ATPL. However, this one change would fix many of the problems we see. Further, outside the training industry, there are changes needed to improve the industry overall (duty time limits and whistleblower protections come to mind).


Happy Flying!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Piloting as a Profession: Part 4, Training Standards

... Continuing from the previous post (Part 3, Self Regulation) and considering the question, “Is the training/education provided to pilots adequate?”:

Transport Canada and the Transportation Safety Board have recognized that a statistical up-tick in accident rates occurs at around 500 hours of total flight experience. It is believed (but not actually known for sure) by many that this up-tick is a result of confidence exceeding ability. Of course, even if this is accurate, it’s surely an over-simplification, but it’ll do for our present discussion. 500 hours puts a full-time new-hire pilot about 3 to 6 months out of school. Having an accident rate problem at this point is a clear symptom of weaknesses in training.

Some other symptoms of weak training include:
  1. Fail rate (~25%!) on a flight test that some in the industry consider inadequate to begin with.
  2. Fail rate (~32%!) on a "written exam" that many (most?) in the industry consider inadequate to begin with.
  3. Insurance requirements tied to raw experience with no reference to education.
  4. Employability requirements tied to raw experience with little or no reference to education.
This last one is especially important. When people within the industry don’t value or recognize the education received by pilots, that presents us with a big red flag.

Do some pilots work hard and learn lots and excel at what they do? Yes. Absolutely. Do some others do the minimum required of them and scrape by on a fairly low standard? Yes. Definitely. But how many wash out due to lack of effort or aptitude? I don’t have any numbers, but from my own experiences and observations, I feel confident saying "not very many".

One of the problems we run into is that companies have no way to distinguish between the "high quality" and "low quality" pilot groups—they all get the same license in the end. As a result, there is no incentive to hire, promote, or pay extra for the higher quality candidates. The absence of quality incentives discourages high quality candidates, and even pushes some of them out of the industry altogether. This creates a vicious circle caused ultimately by what economists term "information asymmetry"—resulting in the long-term degradation of the average quality of pilot candidates. How many potential high-quality candidates chose to pursue business, medicine, or engineering instead of aviation after hearing about the widely publicized pay rates and working conditions of the Colgan 3407 pilots. (That’s a rhetorical question, I don’t actually have any stats, but there’s no doubt that there were many).

This gradual degradation of the quality of pilot candidates is a long-term industry risk that is hard to recognize, in part because it has no corresponding short-term risk. Further, the risk is amplified by the rarity of high-quality training.

I mentioned previously that the training philosophy in aviation hasn’t changed appreciably since World War II. This isn’t all bad. The fact is, the framework that we conduct training within is pretty effective. But there is room for major improvements, and some changes are long overdue—especially in the training of professional pilots (in truth, the training of private and recreational pilots is pretty good, and probably doesn’t need any direct changes).

So, bearing all of this in mind, what changes should be made? This question opens a huge can of worms. The list could be very extensive and subject to all kinds of debate. Changes suggested could range from fundamental changes to minor fine-tunings, with everything in between. So, for the sake of brevity, I’ll take a more focused approach to the question.

Instructors are taught very early on to look for the "root cause" of student errors. A single root cause often results in a series of errors. So rather than trying to fix each error independently, we should try to address the one error (i.e. – the root cause) that will fix the most subsequent problems. With this philosophy in mind, what single change could be made that would result in the most improvement in the flight training industry? (Note that even this approach will give us a debatable answer to the question, but at least the debate can be a little more focused).


Happy Flying!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Piloting as a Profession: Part 3, Self Regulation

... Continuing from the previous post (Part 2, Are We Professional?) and considering the question, "Can pilots self-regulate without compromising public safety?":

There has been lot’s of debate over the aviation industry’s ability to self-regulate. There are all kinds of theoretical reasons why we shouldn’t be allowed to self-regulate—most of them based on flawed or incomplete theory, frankly. But, as they say in engineering, data trumps theory. There are plenty of other disciplines where self-regulation has been successful and effective—medicine and engineering come immediately to mind, but there have been others as well.

One of the problems with the self-regulation concept is that many people interpret "self-regulation" as "no rules and no oversight", which would indeed be likely to cause problems. In fact, there have been examples of this approach, and they have invariably proved unsuccessful. So, in order to effectively discuss self-regulation, it’s important to clarify what self-regulation means, and to make a distinction between different approaches.

One example of self-regulation is what we are seeing with the implementation of SMS (Safety Management System for readers not familiar). SMS basically amounts to individual companies regulating themselves without oversight from regulatory authorities or other industry groups (some regulators may disagree with me on this point, but let’s call a spade a spade—any oversight that exists is superficial at best). Some companies are really good at regulating themselves, and they make SMS look good. Some other companies are ... um ... not so good, and SMS gives them the opportunity to get worse. The program has been roundly criticized by the Auditor General, primarily due to the lack of proper oversight. Similar criticisms have been forthcoming from industry insiders.

This SMS-based example is distinct from the self-regulation of a profession. The self-regulation model of a College is that of a whole industry self-regulating with legislative oversight from parliament. A whole industry necessarily takes the long-term view when making decisions. This may not be the case for individual companies. Further, the interests of a whole industry are far more likely to be aligned with the interests of society than those of a single company. There are certainly counter-examples of this (for example, I could now rant about the ongoing and unnecessary shortage of doctors in Canada), which is why oversight is needed, but the general trend is valid.

Bearing this distinction in mind, could pilots, as an industry-wide group, successfully self-regulate? Could they balance the needs of the profession and industry against the needs of society?

If you’re of the mind that pilots cannot self-regulate, then I would have to ask, "Who should regulate us?". Who should regulate the operation of complex machinery, the operation of which requires knowledge of aerodynamics, meteorology, navigation, engines and propulsion, electronics, communication protocols, airspace structures, ATC procedures, aircraft certification, human factors, crew resource management, etc.? Politicians? Really? How can a person (or group) who doesn’t understand the system regulate the system?

We need to be regulated by a group who is knowledgeable and who is not tied to the status quo except to the extent that it works, which it sometimes doesn’t. Further, pilots are at the sharp end of the industry. If our passengers (and/or folks on the ground) are in danger, so are we. So we have a clear vested interest in improving operational safety for the benefit of society. This means we have an interest in managing both short-term and long-term risks to enhance operational safety.

Individual pilots almost never have the power to initiate positive change—even if they do recognize the need and the manner in which it can be accomplished. As a group, not only can we make better, more forward-looking decisions, but we would have the power to implement and enforce these decisions.

The bottom line here is that not only are we capable of self-regulation, we (and society) need it. Will there be errors made along the way? Sure. We’re talking here about a system designed and managed by humans. There will be errors. But this doesn’t need to be a deal breaker—the political status quo is certainly no better. The inherent motivation of self-regulated pilots will drive us to identify and correct errors as they happen, or in the short-term afterward. Further, pilots are just one component of the system. Our efforts are augmented by those of Air Traffic Controllers, Maintenance Engineers, Dispatchers, etc. These groups will continue to be regulated independently of pilots—either by Transport Canada in accordance with the current status quo, or through their own self-regulation arrangements.


Happy Flying!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Piloting as a Profession: Part 2, Are We Professional?

... Continuing from the last post (Part 1, The CPPC) and considering the question, "Is flying a profession?":

Quoting from other sources, Wikipedia makes the following comments regarding professions:
"A profession is a vocation founded upon specialised educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain."
"A profession arises when any trade or occupation transforms itself through ‘the development of formal qualifications based upon education, apprenticeship, and examinations, the emergence of regulatory bodies with powers to admit and discipline members, and some degree of monopoly rights.’"
The first of these comments applies to pilots. The second is under way in Canada with the College of Pilots. So piloting at least approximates a profession in the formal sense of the word.

There is no legislation in existence that allows pilots to self-regulate. This is one of the key criteria to be a true "profession". So, strictly speaking, we are not a profession. The real question here is: "SHOULD we be a profession?", or perhaps "Are we CAPABLE of being a profession?". So, do we (or can we) meet the criteria of being a profession, and would society benefit from our professional status?

Self-regulation is not the only criterion for a profession, so let’s look at some other important points. Borrowing from some other sources, I’ve come up with the following partial list.
  1. Participation is for Gain or Livelihood.
  2. Activity is Beneficial to Society.
  3. Profession has Legislation to Support Self-Regulation.
  4. Entry into the Profession Requires Significant Educational Achievement.
It’s worth noting that there isn’t a fully clear-cut and accepted definition of a “profession”. So even if I tried to provide a comprehensive listing here, it would inevitably be incomplete and open to debate. This list hits the key points that are, for the most part, universally accepted.

The first criterion, "Participation is for Gain or Livelihood," is easy. Professional pilots operate aircraft for hire. This does, however, call into question the professionalism of those who work for free in order to "get hours". Oh dear. Did I say that out loud? Them’s fightin’ words! Perhaps there’ll be more on that in a future post...

The second criterion,"Activity is Beneficial to Society," isn’t much tougher. Transportation of people and goods is necessary for modern society to exist, and indeed this activity makes up a large portion of the aviation industry. But aircraft are used for far more, and even without the need for transportation, the aviation industry would still be needed by society (albeit on a smaller scale). The list of aircraft activities is extensive. Some activities that come to mind immediately include:
National Defense (which itself includes a whole host of different flight activities), Search and Rescue, Medivac, Law Enforcement, Fire Monitoring and Fighting, Pipeline and Wireline Patrol, Geo Surveying, Research and Development, Weather Observation and Research, Agriculture Support, and so on.
All of these activities benefit society. They, by their very nature, must be conducted by experts who are proficient in the relevant operations, and are knowledgeable about the applicable variables and contingencies. Further, the ability of the operator (i.e. – the pilot) to plan and conduct these activities safely impacts society’s exposure to risk. Such statements could just as easily be made regarding other professions (e.g. – medicine, engineering).

Criterion #3, "Profession has Legislation to Support Self-Regulation," is clearly not met at this time. However, it is worth discussion with regard to the ability of the industry to govern itself (see next post!).

The fourth and final listed criterion, "Entry into the Profession Requires Significant Educational Achievement," is debatable. Transport Canada’s standard for the issuance of a license it really not that high—based more on hours flown than on any real demonstration of high-level skill or knowledge. Certainly, some schools set and enforce a high standard. Some others do not. Some students at these other schools set their own high standard. Some others do not. This inconsistency is something that I hope the College can address—and it is in fact one of the primary purposes of the self-regulation of a profession.

So, back to the original, modified, questions: "SHOULD we be a profession?" or "Are we CAPABLE of being a profession?". The answer is clearly yes. There is work to be done. But everything that needs to be accomplished can be in the near term. The only issue that remains up in the air is that of legislation. Passing new law through parliament is an inherently political process, and is far beyond my expertise. However, I think it’s fair to say that this may be a very time-consuming process. This doesn’t make it any less of a worthy goal, just something we have to be realistic about.


Happy Flying!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Piloting as a Profession: Part 1, The CPPC

A fairly recent development in the Canadian Aviation industry is the new presence of the College of Professional Pilots of Canada. This College is still in the process of getting on their feet, but they’ve already inspired some rather vigorous debate over the state of the industry and, more specifically, the role of "pilot" (for example, HERE and HERE).

According to their Mission Statement, the College’s intention is to operate with Transport Canada through a Safety Partnership Program to “regulate licensed commercial and airline transport pilots and provide and administer guidelines for safety in commercial and airline transport aviation.”

The Mission Statement goes on to say:
The College’s goal is to establish and maintain standards for education, training, certification, aircraft and instrument rating, professional competence and professional conduct of commercial and airline transport pilots. The College’s mission is, with the authority of the Minister, the governance of professional pilots in the interests of public safety and efficient commercial flight activities.

The College’s governance will include the establishment and maintenance of standards for training and professional conduct and the enforcement of such standards.
All of this seems reasonable to me. Having a group run by, and answerable to, those in the industry would appear to be the most effective way to regulate the industry for the benefit of society. This is especially true with regard to training (my own area of expertise). The training philosophy in aviation hasn’t changed appreciably since World War II, despite significant advances in technology and major changes in the nature and demographics of the industry.

Regardless of how reasonable the College’s approach seems, it presents us with at least three questions that will continue to be debated for some time:
Is flying a profession?
Can pilots self-regulate without compromising public safety?
Is the training/education provided to pilots adequate?
I’m inclined to accept the answer to the first two of these questions as “yes”. But that’s a position that needs to be supported since it is not universally accepted, even within the industry itself. As for the third question, the training industry tends to be hot and cold—some schools do a great job, while others do an ... er ... not so great job. This lack of consistency is a serious problem that leads to a whole host of other problems. It needs to be addressed, and is probably the place where the College can have the most positive impact on the industry—at least in the near term.

There are those who disagree with me. Many fear that the College will become "just another union". This intent has been explicitly denied by the current College executive. Nonetheless, it strikes me as a reasonable concern. But the best way to address it appears to be to get involved—and to make sure the College develops into an organization with the whole industry’s best interests in mind. By all appearances, this is indeed the direction that the College is headed in. But, the political process being what it is, it can’t hurt to get involved and have your say.


Happy Flying!