NTSB Process – After the Crash

What happens after The Crash? Fortunately, this is a question only a few people need ask, but it’s good for everyone to know. This discussion will focus on a major accident that destroys the aircraft and results in serious injury or death.

Asiana Airlines accident at San Francisco International Airport (KSFO)

Asiana Airlines accident at San Francisco International Airport (KSFO)

You know from your pilot training that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is the agency responsible for investigating aircraft accidents. The NTSB also has the ability to delegate the actual investigation to the FAA for less serious accidents involving general aviation aircraft. When an accident occurs, the NTSB decides if they will investigate or if they will assign the investigation to the FAA.

If an accident is assigned to the FAA, one or two investigators—an operations inspector and/or an airworthiness inspector—gather the facts surrounding the event and send a report to the NTSB for analysis and determination of the cause; but even then, the NTSB determines the cause of the accident, not the FAA. The FAA investigator offers an opinion of the cause of the accident, but the NTSB makes the final determination.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) publishes rules and protocols for all aircraft accident investigations that all member countries adopt into their own regulations, creating a worldwide standard. In the United States, both the NTSB and the Department of Defense have adopted these rules for civilian and military aircraft; they apply to the investigations done by the FAA as well. Let’s look at a situation where the NTSB elects to investigate the accident, either because of the notoriety or the magnitude of the accident.

Under ICAO standards, the investigating authority (the NTSB in the United States) appoints an Investigator-In-Charge (IIC) who assigns technical experts as needed from either the NTSB or FAA, which may include but are not limited to operations specialists (pilots, dispatchers, and mechanics), air traffic control specialists, engineers, medical personnel, and meteorologists. Others have the right to participate in the investigation, if they desire, and are called “Parties to the Investigation”; but ICAO rules strictly define who may ask or be asked to join the investigation. In addition to representatives from the country where the accident occurred, these parties may include representatives from the country where the aircraft was registered (or the country of the operator), the country where the aircraft was designed, and the country or countries where the aircraft and engines were manufactured. The investigating authority can also ask for representatives from the companies that built or operated the airplane. Representatives of people injured or killed in the accident may not be Parties to the Investigation, but may attend public hearings where they may provide input or comments to investigators.

Depending on the accident the NTSB will release a preliminary report with factual information but no analysis two to six weeks after the accident.

Once the investigation is complete, the NTSB publishes a final determination of the cause or causes of the accident along with their recommendations to prevent similar accidenats in the future.  This can take up to a year after the accident. However, they do not release the analysis and reasoning that lead to their conclusion, nor do they determine liability.

If you are a survivor or relative of a crash victim, you will have to go to court and make a case for why someone should pay damages and/or compensation to you. To do this, you will need to hire your own investigator and technical experts to prove your theory of what caused the accident to the judge or jury’s understanding and satisfaction.

If you were the pilot or represent the estate of the pilot involved in an accident you will have to defend claims against you and make claims against others you feel contributed to the accident.

After an aircraft accident, there are two investigations: one by the NTSB, which determines the cause of an accident and makes safety recommendations to prevent future similar accidents, but which does not determine liability for the accident; and the second investigation, wherein those who seek compensation for damages or loss must develop a theory and produce evidence in court to establish their claim. Facts from the NTSB report may be used in this process, but no analysis or findings from the NTSB investigation may be used in the court trial. The court will determine liability and the amount of money the liable party or parties must pay.

The NTSB offers their opinion regarding the cause(s) of an accident based on all the information available to them but they do not have a burden of proof like a claimant does in a court of law when suing for liability and compensation or punitive damages.

I hope you never need this information but, if you do, I hope it helps.

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An Afternoon with Erich Hartmann

The most enjoyable thing about meeting Erich Hartmann, the man who shot down 352 airplanes, was learning that, like any pilot, he loved talking about flying. His flying experience was more than the famous fighter pilot. He learned to fly gliders as a youth and was a glider instructor at age 14. His mother was his first instructor. He got his civilian powered pilot’s license when he was 17 in 1939. After he retired from the Luftwaffe in 1970 he went back to being a civilian instructor pilot in Germany.

Because of his young looks his nickname, or call sign, was Bubi, German slang for young boy.

Because of his young looks his nickname, or call sign, was Bubi, German slang for young boy.

The mission the day I spent at Erich Hartmann’s house was to interview him and discuss flying safety. At the time (1983 to 1986) I was on the flight safety staff at the headquarters for U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. In addition to my duties as the action officer for flight safety and accident investigation for all F-15s, F-5s and F-4s in Europe I was also a contributing editor to the USAFE safety magazine called “Airscoop”. Military pilots, like all pilots, can’t be forced to be safe, they have to want to be safe and the way you develop that desire is by leadership and example. My thought was that our pilots would respect Erich Hartmann’s perspective on flight safety based on his qualifications as an accomplished fighter pilot who was, in fact, an old, bold pilot. I found out how to get in touch with Hartmann, asked for an interview on the topic of flying safety and he said sure. Since I was the one to set it up I got to do the interview but the interview team included the editor of the magazine and an interpreter. Although Hartmann spoke English he wanted a professional interpreter with aviation background in case he wanted to make some points that he might not know exactly how to say in English. His English turned out to be just fine.

Hartmann had two main points: Have good maintenance and know your pilots. On the first point Hartmann developed a very good rapport with his mechanic, Heinz Bimmel, who worked with him on all his aircraft. One time, when Hartmann was forced to land behind Russian lines, Bimmel grabbed a rifle and went looking for Hartmann to rescue him. Hartmann was captured but managed to escape and make it back to the German lines. On the last day of the war Hartmann put Bimmel in the back of his Bf-109 and flew to the American sector to surrender rather than being taken prisoner by the Russians. The Americans promptly turned both of them over to the Russians in accordance with the Yalta Agreements which said German POWs would go to the Ally in whose sector they were fighting. Hartmann then spent 10 years in Russian prisons before being repatriated to Germany. I asked him which was better, his Russian or his English and he said it was his Russian.

When it came to knowing his pilots Hartmann said he could tell after the first interview with a new pilot in the squadron if the pilot was going to be an asset or a liability. It was simply a matter of attitude. Even among fighter pilots, who are notoriously self-confident, he could tell which ones would listen and learn and which ones thought they already knew it all.

According to historians Hartmann was never shot down although he did make several forced landings after flying through the debris of an airplane he just shot down and a couple of times after running out of gas before getting back to a base to land. Needless to say there were no air-to-air missiles so all of his aerial victories were from gun shots, many of which were taken at less than 300 feet slant range (he liked to get close to his work) which explains the battle damage he sustained as he flew through the exploding frag pattern of the airplane he just shot.

His risk mitigation in combat, a form of aeronautical decision making, was his doctrine of “See – Decide – Attack – Coffee Break” meaning he would visually acquire a target, determine if he had an offensive advantage and only attack if he could do so safely. He had no problem passing up engagements where he couldn’t enter with an advantage. Finally, after every attack he would completely disengage, regroup and then start looking for another fight. He would often fly five or six sorties in a day. Hartmann is convinced that up to 80% of his targets never knew he was there until he opened fire which is why we place so much emphasis on visual lookout to this day. Hartmann feels his greatest accomplishment, surpassing his 352 victories, is that he never lost a wingman. There’s a bit of a stretch there in that he did have one wingman get shot down but he parachuted to safety so Hartmann never had a wingman get killed (lost).

After Hartmann was released from Russian captivity he joined the West German Air Force and flew F-86s and F-104’s. He got his checkout in the F-104 at Luke AFB outside of Phoenix. He then went head to head with the German Air Force leadership saying the F-104 was not a good choice for Germany and subsequently retired from the Luftwaffe in 1970. The F-104 became known as the widow maker. The German Air Force lost 282 F-104s and 115 pilots in training crashes.

Hartmann’s house in Weil im Schönbuch, just south of Stuttgart, was located under one of our air-to-air training areas (MOAs) for F-15s, F-4s, F-104s, F-18s, F-16s and Toronados. He often sat on his patio watching and critiquing engagements.

Erich Hartmann flew west in 1993 at the age of 71. A good biography on Erich Hartmann is called “The Blond Knight of Germany” by Raymond Tolliver and Trevor Constable.

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Are You Getting Good Weather Information

Severe Weather Storm

Severe Weather Storm

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) doesn’t think pilots are getting all the information or the best information to make decisions during preflight or while in flight when they go to the typical aviation weather sources, specifically the Aviation Weather Center or the Flight Service. Technically the Aviation Weather Center’s web page is not an official source of weather information for preflight planning. In order to have a documented weather briefing from an approved source you need to get your weather through a flight service station briefing or a DUAT or DUATS weather briefing. But, guess where they get their weather information, from the Aviation Weather Center and the National Weather Service.

There are non-aviation related weather products produced by the National Weather Service (NWS) that are not normally addressed when agencies provide pilot weather briefings.

The NTSB cites accidents where the aviation weather provided to pilots during preflight planning did not paint as clear a picture of the forecast weather as other products available from the National Weather Service. In a recent NTSB Safety Recommendation to the FAA the NTSB said they are “concerned that although weather hazards are identifiable by NWS meteorologists, routinely issued aviation weather products may not alert the aviation community to the presence or full severity of these hazards”.

Here are some examples from the NTSB letter:

“On January 17, 2010, a Cessna 182R collided with mountainous terrain 9 miles northwest of Corvallis, Oregon, resulting in two fatalities. While several NWS aviation weather products were issued for wind for the state of Oregon that day, the NWS Weather Forecasting Office in Portland, Oregon, had issued a nonaviation-specific high wind warning for wind much higher than that forecast in the aviation weather products. On November 10, 2011, a Eurocopter EC130B4 helicopter collided with mountainous terrain near Pukoo on the island of Molokai, Hawaii, resulting in five fatalities. While NWS aviation weather products for wind and turbulence had been issued, two NWS nonaviation-specific weather products advised of wind magnitudes 13 to 15 knots higher than what had been advised in the aviation weather products.On May 24, 2012, a Gulfstream American AA-5A impacted terrain about 40 miles northeast of Lakeview, Oregon, resulting in one fatality. While NWS aviation weather products advised of broken ceilings, rain showers, and moderate turbulence, an NWS nonaviation-specific weather product advised of wintry conditions and significant wind gusts.On March 3, 2013, a Mooney M20E impacted terrain after departing Angel Fire Airport, Angel Fire, New Mexico, resulting in four fatalities. At the time of the accident, there was a substantial crosswind to the runway with a sustained wind of 33knots and gusts to 47 knots; however, an NWS aviation weather product only advised of wind gusts to 25 knots, while two NWS nonaviation-specific weather products discussed stronger wind gusts.”

One source of aviation weather information that is not widely disseminated is weather advisories produced by NWS forecasters located in each air route traffic control center called Center Weather Service Units (CWSUs)

Mountain Wave

Mountain Wave

Another weather hazard the NTSB feels is not getting enough emphasis or dissemination is mountain wave activity (MWA). Pilots will often get forecasts of turbulence with no mention of mountain wave and just as importantly you can have smooth air with strong mountain wave activity present. I’ve had this happen to me on two occasions, once VFR and once IFR, and in both cases the downdrafts exceeded the aircraft’s capability to maintain altitude. In each case I allowed enough altitude for the possibility and was able to safely transit the area. The first was a VFR flight from San Diego to Lake Havasu. The winds were out of the west and although the air was smooth the down drafts on the leeward side of mountain ridges were very strong. I maintained full power at VY and watched the aircraft descend at 500 feet per minute as I flew through the down drafts. It occurred over the valleys to the east of the mountains so the altitude I had to clear the mountains allowed me to ride it out. The second was an IFR flight from Phoenix to San Diego. I intentionally went the southern route through Yuma and Imperial as the downdrafts and turbulence around Julian VORTAC are notorious when the winds are strong and have caused many accidents. I heard others on center frequency working to maintain altitude. I made sure I was well above the minimum enroute altitude (MEA) as well as the clouds as I approached the mountains east of San Diego. At first I was able to maintain altitude but fighting the head winds and down drafts I was making a huge 40 knots of ground speed. Because it is a mountain wave activity you progress through down drafts and up drafts. Eventually, I got to one down draft where I couldn’t maintain altitude and I let center know. He cleared me for a 2,000 foot altitude block and I was able to regain lost altitude each time I encountered an up draft. I went through two cycles of that before I got to the windward side of the mountains and no longer had trouble maintaining altitude but I stayed high as long as I could before starting the descent to get through the cloud layer and land.

Currently neither the NWS nor the Aviation Weather Center are not required to provide advisories when mountain wave activity is present so your only clue may be strong winds over the mountains, listening to the radio on flight following to hear how others are doing and, possibly, PIREPS if pilots report mountain wave. Two air traffic control centers, Denver and Salt Lake, provide weather warnings about mountain wave activity in their weather products.

To address these problems the NTSB recommends the FAA ensure that preflight weather briefings include any products created by the NWS and that the NWS include mountain wave activity in aviation weather products. The NTSB also recommends that weather information produced by air traffic control center weather service units be included in the information that is briefed to pilots.

What can you do in the mean time? Well maybe watching the Weather Channel and local media forecasts in addition to getting the required aviation forecasts can help give you a better picture of the situation and isn’t such a silly idea after all. If what you are hearing from non-aviation sources differs greatly from what you are getting from flight service or DUAT/DUATS you should consider using the more extreme of the two values. Also, now that ADS-B IN weather information is available in the cockpit at reasonable prices, you can keep up with the weather information in flight. You no longer have to rely solely on the stale information you got during your preflight briefing.

ADS-B Weather Display

ADS-B Weather Display

The entire recommendation letter from the NTSB to the FAA is available at:

http://www.ntsb.gov/doclib/recletters/2014/A-14-013-016.pdf

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Aviation is more than Pilots

We often say that aviation is more than pilots. We know it’s true, but it’s always nice to see it demonstrated. That was the case recently at a formation – clinic fly-in with Red Star Yak and CJ-6 pilots and several T-34 pilots at Falcon Field in Mesa, Arizona. This is an annual event and the organizer does a lot of coordination to make this an enjoyable and productive training weekend.

Falcon Warbirds hosted the event in their “new” hangar, which was built in World War II to train pilots from America and several other countries as well. It’s not just local pilots who take part in the event: several came from California, one T-34 pilot flew in from Houston, and a Yak-52 pilot came from Denver. Arrangements were made at the Arizona Golf Resort for a group rate, as they are every year, and the hotel staff were eager to make our stay pleasant.

Arizona Golf Resort

Arizona Golf Resort

With 15 to 20 airplanes flying 2- and 4-ship training sorties, advanced coordination with the air traffic controllers in the tower—for standardized departure and arrival procedure—made life simple for pilots and controllers alike. Several controllers took advantage of invitations to fly in the back seat and see the operation from the pilot’s perspective during event. The tower controllers were kept busy and they thoroughly enjoyed the additional activity because it had been coordinated ahead of time and they were prepared.

4-Ship Training Flight

4-Ship Training Flight

Two mechanics familiar with the aircraft being flown made themselves available from Thursday through Sunday, and they were kept busy. On Saturday’s first flight, a CJ-6 developed an oil leak. With the cowling removed the mechanics quickly discovered that one of the cylinders had unseated and was loose on the crankcase housing. They were able to remove the cylinder, check the bolts, replace a defective bolt and re-install the cylinder in time for the airplane to fly after lunch. Another CJ-6 was making strange noises. The mechanics found a cracked exhaust manifold and were able to repair that with a weld.

Mechanic at Work

Mechanic at Work

A local custom helmet maker was there for the entire weekend for repairs and to sell new helmets. A master parachute rigger spent Saturday with us to provide overnight repacking services. He briefed us on establishing a habit pattern of donning our parachute before getting in the airplane and removing it after we deplane to preclude inadvertently unbuckling the parachute in an airborne emergency egress situation before stepping over the side. He also suggested storing parachutes inside as ultraviolet rays are damaging to parachutes and packs over time.

The City of Mesa’s airport fire department stopped by with one of their engines to make sure everything was going well.

CJ-6 Line Up

CJ-6 Line Up

There were two professional photographers documenting the activities both on the ground and in the air.

And family members were drafted to help with the logistics, running the registration table and taking care of the catering chores, which were extensive. Each morning they provided coffee, donuts and fruit to start the day. They made another trip each day to local restaurants to bring us great lunches, and then they set up and catered the awards banquet on Saturday night.

Two Red Star standardization pilots were available to give check rides to pilots ready for their wing or flight lead checks.

There is a distinction between pilots and aviators. Pilots fly airplanes while aviators are people who love aviation. By those definitions, you don’t have to be a pilot to be an aviator; and there are some pilots (not many) who are not really aviators.

Bottom line: aviators from different sectors of the community came together to make a great weekend of formation flying. The culmination was a 16-ship mass formation fly-by at the Williams Gateway open house at the old Williams AFB east of Chandler, AZ.

16-Ship Flyby

16-Ship Flyby

 

 

 

 

 

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Sun Tax

The Sunbelt extends from California to Florida across the southern United States . While there are multiple benefits to living in the Sunbelt, there are costs and drawbacks as well; we refer to them as “sun tax.” The cost of living in the Sunbelt can be higher than other areas. We take tremendous amounts of grief, and get no sympathy, in the winter from our friends and family who live in the northern tier.

Sunbelt

Sunbelt

One perceived problem to pilots living in the Sunbelt is all the foreign pilot training that goes on at our fair-weather airports.  Foreign student pilots are drawn to the United States for more than just weather. In addition to the excellent training, it is actually more economical to train here. It is less expensive to come here and get their pilot certificate than do the training in their home country even when you add in the costs of getting here, housing and meals. This also provides a great economic boon to the communities where flight schools cater to foreign pilot training. One student will spend around $50,000.00 for flight training from zero time to a commercial/instrument rating and will pay rent for a year in addition to food and transportation.

However, local pilots frequently complain about being imposed upon while struggling to understand pilots whose mother tongue is not English. But requiring foreign students to work in English, both on the radio and in their daily interactions, while they are here actually enhances  safety because they get a better command of English. This facilitates their integration into the international aviation environment. I admire them for taking on this formidable challenge.

When I was stationed in Germany, it was always fun watching our new pilots struggle to understand German controllers speaking English. As soon as they were starting to get comfortable with the German accent, we would take them to a fair-weather training base in Italy or Spain. This would not only force them to deal with those new accents, they would also have to work with French controllers to get to either destination.

While in Germany I also flew gliders. The soaring club I flew with didn’t have any English speaking instructors. I had done tow launches in Canada but the Germans exclusively used winch launches. It’s a very time-compressed activity so it was important for me to be able to keep up in German. This gives me a great empathy for all the foreign pilots training here in English. We do them a great favor by expecting them to speak good English, but we can do that without being mean or ugly to them. I also must give great credit to the tower controllers who work with our foreign visitors, and I encourage the controllers to be patient and firm as well.

My latest experience in the international environment was a trip to Normandy, France last summer when I rented a Cirrus to fly over the D-Day beaches and Mont St. Michel. There was no ATIS at the airport in Caen, and when I came up on the single frequency for ground and tower, everything was in French. I asked the instructor if he wanted to make the radio calls and he said I should. I made the call in English. The controller didn’t skip a beat and responded in English with the airfield information and clearance to taxi.

Carpiquet Airport, Caen, France (LFRK)

Carpiquet Airport, Caen, France (LFRK)

We really need to appreciate what the rest of the world goes through to be able to meet the International Civil Aviation Organization’s mandate that the language of aviation is English. The next time you hear a foreign student working hard to communicate in English, think what it would be like to be in his or her country trying to fly and having to speak that language rather than English.

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Paying Respects

Flying is not all sunshine and roses. There are solemn and poignant moments as well, and they engender a deeper bond among those of us who fly.

I had the opportunity to go to the National Museum of the Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, for the final public reunion and last toast of the surviving Doolittle Raiders—four of the eighty brave men who carried out the Tokyo Raid that revealed a home front vulnerability to the emboldened Japanese leadership.

In April of 1942, just four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and seventy-nine other pilots, navigators, bombardiers and gunners launched sixteen B-25s from the deck of the USS HORNET to attack major cities in Japan including Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya and Kobe.

The original plan was to strike Japan and recover in China. But the task force was spotted by a Japanese patrol boat 170 miles away from the intended launch point, where the bombers would have been in range and able to recover in China. Instead, they launched immediately knowing that they would not be able to make it to safety in the Chinese-controlled airfields.

B-25 Launching from USS HORNET

B-25 Launching from USS HORNET

After bombing Japan, four planes crash landed, eleven crews bailed out in Japanese controlled areas of China and one crew made it to Russia. Most of the crews managed to evade the Japanese with the assistance of the local Chinese. The Japanese killed all the residents of villages that assisted the Americans. Three Raiders died in the assault, eight were captured by the Japanese.

Robert Heit, POW after Tokyo Raid

Robert Heit, POW after Tokyo Raid

Of the eight captured, three were executed and one starved to death in prison. The remaining four were repatriated after the war. In all, sixty-two of the eighty Raiders survived the war.

The mission was not terribly successful in terms of actual bomb damage to the Japanese homeland, but it was monumental in embarrassing the Emperor and the Japanese military. It also gave Americans a much needed boost to sagging morale in the early days of World War II. The Raiders were appropriately regarded as heroes.

In 1946 the surviving Raiders held their first reunion and continued to do so every year in a different city around the country. In 1959 the reunion was in Tucson, Arizona, and the city presented the Raiders with a set of 80 silver goblets. Each goblet had the name of one Raider engraved on it twice, once so you could read the name when the goblet was right side up and again so you could read the name when the goblet was upside down. Then Lt. General Doolittle added a bottle of cognac made in 1896, the year of his birth.

Goblets on display at the Air Force Museum

Goblets on display at the Air Force Museum

The pact with the group was that the last two surviving Raiders would open the bottle and drink a toast to all the Raiders. At each successive reunion, the goblets of those who had died in the previous year were inverted. Today only four of the eighty goblets are right side up.

This past April at the 71st Raider reunion, the four surviving Raiders, now all in their 90s, decided it was time to have their final public reunion, open the bottle of cognac and have their toast as it has become difficult for them to travel. They picked Memorial Day weekend and the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB for the time and location. Only three of them were able to attend.

Surviving Raiders

Surviving Raiders

It was a party I couldn’t miss, and I’m glad I went. The public ceremony was short and sweet, with comments from acting Secretary of the Air Force, the Honorable Eric Fanning, and Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Mark Welsh, III. Never have I heard a political appointee and a four-star general give such brief and relevant speeches. The best comments came from Lt. Colonel Richard (Dick) Cole, USAF (Ret.), Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot in plane number one. He thanked the several hundred attendees and reiterated that the Raiders saw themselves as a group of aviators carrying out an assigned mission, just doing what needed to be done, not really “heroes.” This is the legacy of the so-called Greatest Generation.

I was with a group of aviators from the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots’ Association and appreciated that the crowd was a cross section of all ages—from Boy and Girl Scouts to senior citizens.

River Rats at Doolittle Raider Reunion

River Rats at Doolittle Raider Reunion

The ceremony culminated with a five-ship, missing-man fly-by of B-25s. The toast was a private, invitation-only ceremony, and I wasn’t on the A list.

B-25 Missing Man Formation

B-25 Missing Man Formation

If you have never seen the movie 30 Seconds over Tokyo, it’s worth watching. The story is accurately told; Hollywood didn’t have to add a lot of superficial dramatization to this amazing saga. Get your kids and grandkids to watch it with you. Let them know there’s a lot more hero lurking inside every one of us than we realize. It just needs to be called upon.


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Flying with a Mentor

Why would you want to fly with a mentor pilot? Maybe you’re new to an airplane; newly rated as an instrument pilot; or going someplace challenging that you haven’t been before and you would like to have the assurance of someone who has been there and done that. Mentor pilots come in several flavors and don’t necessarily have to be a rated flight instructor, depending on the situation. Some will fly with you just for fun, and at other times you really need to pay for the expertise you want.

One kind of mentor that most instrument pilots are familiar with is a safety pilot so the instrument pilot can wear a vision restriction device and fly instrument approaches to maintain currency. The safety pilot must be qualified in the type of aircraft being flown and have a current medical certificate. It’s not difficult to get friends to be safety pilots, particularly if you fly to a nearby field and stop for the ubiquitous $100 hamburger or breakfast burrito.

You might also want a mentor if you’re going somewhere new and challenging like Catalina, Big Bear, anywhere in the L.A. basin, or a to a new destination near a large metropolitan area. If you haven’t flown through the Las Vegas, L.A. or Phoenix Class B airspace, you will be amazed at the difference in service general aviation VFR aircraft get compared to the very accommodating folks in SoCal that run the San Diego Class B.

Finally, just because you passed your instrument check ride and have your IFR rating doesn’t mean you are instantly comfortable flying IFR, let alone flying in real clouds. It’s a lot different when you can’t take the hood off and peek. Having another qualified and experienced instrument pilot sitting next to you can feel pretty good the first time you take a real IMC cross-country.

I went to Air Force pilot training in Arizona, so you can imagine how much actual instrument time I had when I showed up for my training in the F-4 as a fully qualified instrument rated jet pilot.

On the day I was scheduled for my crew solo instrument round robin, the weather was 1,000 feet overcast. I was flying with a navigator—not a pilot—in the back seat who was also getting his initial check out in the F-4,  and I assumed the flight would be cancelled since we didn’t fly the ice-sensitive T-38  in that kind of weather in pilot training.

Both the navigator and I were second lieutenants fresh out of navigator and pilot training, and we quickly found out that we really were in an all-weather Air Force. Off we went from George AFB near Victorville to NAS Lemoore near Fresno, which also had a current ceiling of 1,000 and was forecast to stay that way all day.

We entered the clouds just after takeoff, and the clouds were solid all the way to our cruising altitude of FL 320. I never saw blue sky, and the only time I saw the ground was when we broke out on final at Lemoore. Then we were right back in the soup for the missed approach and return to George for an instrument approach there. I got the leans more than once and made extensive use of the flight control system’s attitude/altitude hold capability. It was very reassuring having the backseater confirm our attitude and run the INS and TACAN navigation systems.

There are some things to consider when you want to find a mentor pilot, and the most important is that they have the qualifications and experience that match what you want to do. Just as important, you don’t want an irresponsible pilot that allows or encourages bad habits. Finally, you want someone you are comfortable with, because at the end of each flight you want a constructive critique of your flying, if there hasn’t already been some discussion during the flight.

Before you fly, make sure you let the mentor know what you seek to gain or learn by having them with you. This is particularly true if you are paying them to be there and share their experience. Make clear what you want them to do: from sit there and offer advice; to keep you safe and ahead of the airplane; to serve as the pilot-not-flying co-pilot taking care of the radios and navigation equipment as you direct during the flight. Be very clear that you are the pilot in command and express under what conditions, if any, you would expect the mentor to take control of the airplane.

The big reason you have asked someone to be a mentor pilot is to help you expand your comfort zone, but don’t let the mentor pilot push you too far as you get the experience you want.  You want a mentor who will support your aeronautical decisions and risk management even if your choices are more conservative than what the mentor would do if he or she were flying. You also want them to speak up if you are pushing too hard.

I have friends I fly with taking turns as each other’s safety pilot for instrument currency, and I have also provided mentoring instruction as a CFII for people seeking advanced instruction on the G1000 and operating in the IFR system. They were all enjoyable flights because we made sure we understood what we expected of each other and what we were trying to accomplish on each flight, and we finished each flight with a debriefing of what went well and where we could improve.

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