Going Direct: Personal Minimums

** My first real approach: Flying the VOR for
Runway 24 at BDR in a Trinidad, ice on the
wings and a crosswind howling. None of it
was forecast.**

(May 2011) SEVERAL YEARS AGO I WAS flying with the family back to Westchester County Airport (KHPN) from Syracuse, New York, where we'd spent the Thanksgiving holiday with family. The forecast wasn't great, but it was easy IFR, if indeed there is such a thing. White Plains was forecast to be 800 feet and 1½ miles, with VFR weather within easy reach.

That forecast, as it turned out, was a complete fantasy.

As we cruised along at 9,000 feet in the Cirrus, I started hearing odd conversations between pilots and controllers. One airport after another was getting shut down. And I’m talking the big boys: JFK, Newark, La Guardia. Even Danbury, Connecticut.

As we approached the Catskills, it was clear that we weren’t flying home that afternoon. White Plains was zero-zero, and the nearest VFR was 80 miles behind us!

Range wasn’t an issue. We could try the approach at Albany and fly back to Buffalo with reserves, if need be. But if we could land in Albany, which was reporting a 200-foot ceiling with visibility slightly better than minimums, we’d be able to rent a car and drive home.

I’d been flying IFR for a few years by that time, but I’d never shot an actual ILS to minimums before.

So there I was, facing the question of whether to try the approach or not. On the one hand, it was legal and I was in a nicely equipped airplane. On the other hand, the report was right at minimums.

I flew the approach, and as it turned out, the report was right on the money. As the gear scraped the decision altitude, those friendly flashing lights came into view and, lo and behold, there was the runway. Well, at least part of it.

I landed, taxied in and tied down. Then the weather dropped, cloud bottom to runway. Ours was the last airplane to land until the next day.

I get the idea of personal minimums, the raising of the runways’ minimum landing ceiling and visibility to some figure with which we’re more comfortable. For me on an ILS, I have to be honest, that figure is the published minimum. For some pilots, that might be 400 feet and a mile.

The problem is that the higher minimum implies a lack of proficiency or confidence that makes one wonder if 400 and a mile is a good idea.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have more conservative standards than the published procedures would allow. A circling approach at night? Forget about it.

Maybe the best answer is to set personal minimums but strive to be proficient down to the published ones.

IPad and Eclipse
The introduction by Apple Computer in early 2010 of a long-rumored tablet, named the iPad, immediately got pilots' attention. Well, "immediately" isn't exactly right. Pilots had already grown enamored of the iPhone, which on a much smaller scale brought the beauty of Apple's paradigm into the palms of their hands. With the launch of the tablet, the software didn't change much. The iPad was essentially a hardware revolution making use of pre-existing revolutionary software.

As a pilot tool, the iPhone was good stuff. You could do all kinds of pilot things on it, such as view charts or get the weather or run checklists, though all of these windows on the world were tiny, the size of an iPhone screen. The iPad made that window huge.

It also brought a great display, super-long battery life, easy touch-screen operation, silky smooth software and easy connectivity. It was, in short, as though Apple had made the thing for pilots. And pilots noticed. And bought them. And the apps came.

Apps are nothing more than programs that can be downloaded from Apple’s App Store. They are typically free or cheap, and they have to pass Apple’s review before they go on sale. The apps are almost certainly not going to crash your iPad or steal your personal information. In this day and age, that’s reassuring.

Even so, when it comes to aviation, the iPad is the definition of disruptive technology. It solves problems, lowers costs and introduces new opportunities and capabilities (none of which came to pass for the Eclipse EA500). The really remarkable thing about the iPad is that it did all of this without intending any of it. It's not an aviation device. It's a human device. Pilots just happen to fit that demographic.

Android Tablet Versus IPad
Soon after the iPad was announced, I wrote on my blog that I wanted one and that I wanted an Android tablet too. I bought an iPad right off the bat, but it wasn't until many months later that a decent Android tablet hit the streets. Android is an open-source operating system that many phone makers install in their smartphones. I have such a phone, a Samsung Galaxy S that I wouldn't trade for an iPhone on a bet.

My tablet, a ViewSonic gTablet, on the other hand, has been a disaster. Its software was horrible — I couldn’t even access the Android app store with it. So I decided to void my warranty and installed open-source software. It works much better now, though it’s far from perfect.

Furthermore, there are very few aviation apps available for it.

When it comes to my phone, Apple’s heavy-handed approach over what software goes on its devices is too heavy-handed for me. When it comes to the iPad, that approach is just right.

This debate over open versus closed access is a story that predates the introduction of the iPad by about 30 years. It’s an open versus closed architecture argument, a Mac versus PC argument, a people power versus corporate control argument.

And it’s an argument that won’t be settled here.

Still, when it comes to using the iPad in the cockpit, I’m convinced that Apple’s approach is a better fit.

I asked Tyson Weihs, co-founder and principal developer of ForeFlight, a terrific iPad multifunction navigation app, for his take on it.

“With the iPad,” he wrote in an e-mail to me, “ developers can more easily create a consistent and remarkable experience for all users with much less risk that some variation in device configuration ends up creating a degraded experience.

“With Android,” he continued, “developers have to spend more time making sure their apps work across a wide range of device configurations; the variability means having to create ‘least common denominator’ solutions; the risk of apps not working perfectly across all Android devices is high.

“This is,” he concluded, “the Southwest Airlines versus American Airlines argument — flying one make and model gives you many advantages.”

Another important iPad developer, Hilton Goldstein, CEO of Hilton Software, developers of WingX Pro, a terrific product that’s a direct competitor with ForeFlight, said he had a different take on the issue. Whereas Weihs focused on risk and product compatibility, Goldstein talked about options and flexibility.

“The Android platform,” Goldstein wrote to me, “has tremendous potential in aviation because of its feature and platform flexibility. Pilots will have the option of device size, screen size, cost and feature set instead of being limited to a single form factor [as they are on the iPad].” He went on to point out that the company’s software is available on both platforms. “We are very excited about the capabilities of the new Android phones and tablets for our flagship product.”

I’m excited too. Look for a review of WingX Pro for Android in these pages soon. Still, if I had to suggest a platform for pilots looking for a tablet, at this point, it’s no contest.

Buy an iPad.

Young Eagles Triumphs
Young Eagles, in case you've been off looking for clues to Amelia Earhart's disappearance in the South Pacific these past 20 years, has been a huge success, with more than 1.5 million young people having been taken on official Young Eagles flights. The original goal was to fly a million young people by the anniversary of the Wright brothers' first powered flight, which it achieved. But the program was just too good to retire, so EAA set a new annual goal of getting 100,000 Young Eagles in the air every year.

Those kids, once their flight information has been entered in the world's biggest logbook (check out youngeagles.com to see it for yourself), can sign up for free online ground school through sportys.com, they can get free student membership in EAA, and they can join the Academy of Model Aeronautics.

As terrific a program as Young Eagles is, EAA gets as much out of the program as it puts into it, if not more. Not only does Young Eagles mobilize the membership to contribute generously, but the EAA’s rank-and-file members also have a new and exciting activity, giving Young Eagles rides, to make them a real part of the future of flying. It’s a contribution of which they can rightfully be proud.

EAA has come up with some tantalizing figures. It claims that Young Eagles are more than five times as likely to become pilots as their non-Eagle counterparts and that 2 percent of Young Eagles who get their ride at age 17 — which makes them more likely to want to learn to fly — become pilots.

Still, I think the overall good it will do for us in aviation might not start to be seen for another 20 years, when the first big wave of Young Eagles takes to the skies as owners of private airplanes of every description. Even those who don’t are likely to wind up on the side of personal aviation on subjects such as airport access and federal funding. We want all Young Eagles to become pilots, but since that’s not going to happen for every one of them, we can live with the consolation prize of the rest being lifelong friends to aviation.


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